Mugged by Reality

By Methwin, Eugene J. | Policy Review, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Mugged by Reality


Methwin, Eugene J., Policy Review


In the 30 years since Congress first established a federal agency for the study of crime, we have spent millions of dollars on criminological studies. That investment is finally bearing fruit. Aided by powerful new computers crunching reams of data, social scientists have learned a lot about criminal careers, how they develop, and how society can thwart them.

The most serious offenders against people and property in this country generally hit their criminal peak between 16 and 18 years of age. The hard-core young thug-to-be starts stealing from mama's purse before he's 10. By the fourth and fifth grades, he is skipping school. As he enters his teens, he's gangbanging--and on the track to prison or an early violent death. Typically he is committing burglaries at about 15, armed robberies at 16, and often killing by 18--and sometimes much younger. After years of effort to con- tain the crime committed by these hoodlums, we know what works and what doesn't. At long last, we have all the knowledge we need to design an effec- tive strategy for the prevention of crime.

Eight lessons we've learned abut the epidemic of crime-and what to do about it.

1. Most serious crime is committed by a violent minority of predatory recidivists.

Criminologist Marvin Wolfgang compiled records of all of the 9,945 males born in 1945 and attending school in Philadelphia between the ages of 10 and 18. A mere 627--just under 7 percent--were chronic offenders, with five or more arrests by age 18. These so-called Dirty Seven Percenters committed more than half of all offenses and two-thirds of the violent crimes, including all the murders, that were committed by the entire cohort.

Wolfgang followed his "Class of '45" through its 30th year in 1975. Shockingly few offenders were incarcerated. Even the 14 murderers among them spent an average of only four years behind bars for these crimes. Worse, these hard-core criminals admitted in interviews that, for each arrest, they typically got away with 8 to 11 other serious crimes. Wolfgang found that 70 percent of juveniles arrested three times committed a fourth offense; of those, 80 percent not only committed a fifth offense, but kept at it through 20 or more. If the city's judges had sent each Dirty Seven Percenter to prison for just a year after his third offense, Wolfgang calculated, Philadelphians would have suffered 7,200 fewer serious crimes while they off the streets.

Wolfgang's findings electrified the law-enforcement world. At the request of U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, Wolfgang repeated the study on the 13,160 Philadelphian males born in 1958. The proportion of chronic offenders was virtually the same: 982 young men (7.5 percent) collected five or more arrests before age 18. But the crimes committed by the "Class of '58" were bloodier and far more frequent. Compared with the Class of '45, these youths were twice as likely to commit rape and aggravated assault, three times more likely to murder, and five times more likely to commit robbery. They were, concluded Wolfgang, "a very violent criminal population of a small number of nasty, bru- tal offenders. They begin early in life and should be controlled equally early."

Other studies with different methodologies corroborated Wolfgang's approximate finding of 7 percent in places as different as London; Copenhagen; Orange County, California; Racine, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix, Arizona; and Salt Lake City, Utah.

2. A minority of this minority is extraordinarily violent, persistent, or both.

They are "Super Predators," far more dangerous than the rest. Researchers for Rand questioned 2,190 prisoners convicted of robbery in California, Texas, and Michigan. Nearly all admitted to many more crimes than those for which they were jailed. But a tiny fraction of these career criminals proved to be extraordinarily frequent offenders. The least active 50 percent of burglars averaged a little under six burglaries a year, while the most prolific 10 per- cent averaged more than 230. …

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