Magazine article Tikkun

A Rage to Punish

Magazine article Tikkun

A Rage to Punish

Article excerpt


Sol Wachtler is the former Chief Judge of New York State's Court of Appeals and Chief Judge of the State of New York. He is the author of After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir. He lives with his wife, Joan, in Manahasset, New York.

The success of crime reduction in almost every major American city is not in need of putative parents. It's difficult to pick up a paper without reading of someone claiming credit for such dramatic statistics as the 35 percent drop in the homicide rate in New York City or the 50 percent drop in murders in East St. Louis.

In the euphoria of this victory over violence, however, we should spend more time determining the reasons and less time congratulating ourselves.

Is an increased and aggressive police presence responsible? This may be true in New York, with its proactive policing and accountability of precinct captains, but it certainly is not true in East St. Louis, where there is no such practice and where a fiscal crisis has caused a severe reduction in the department.

Or maybe it's because crack cocaine is no longer the street drug of choice. After the truce in Afghanistan, the 80,000 poppy growers from that country were again able to supply heroin markets. That meant that crack was replaced by heroin on the streets. Although crime related to drugs would continue, heroin addicts tend to go on the "nod," whereas those who take crack are prone to violence. Also, despite all the talk about the "war on drugs," the drug market has become more organized and the fights and street violence over distribution and market share have settled into a mature, uncontested state of established turf.

Or, maybe, as some experts suggest, the baby boom population has aged past its crime prone years. Forty- and fifty-year olds simply commit fewer crimes than twenty- and thirty-year olds. Nobody gets credit for that but mother nature.

We should applaud the leadership responsible for better policing and be thankful that the crack epidemic is subsiding. At the same time, we should be careful not to credit factors and continue to pursue policies which have not contributed, and in fact may have been counter-productive to the reduction of crime. Such was the recent pronouncement of New Jersey's Governor Whitman, who attributed New Jersey's reduction of violent crime to "longer prison terms. …

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