Justice: Fighting Violence

Franklin Zimring wants to make crime safer. Safe crime? Sounds like a contradiction in terms. Zimring says not. After all, isn't petty theft safer than armed robbery? Isn't a punch in the face better than a bullet in the head? As Zimring argues in his new book, Crime Is Not the Problem, Americans would be much better off we concentrated on softening the crimes instead of beating up on the criminals.Co-authored with Gordon Hawkins, a colleague at UC's Earl Warren Legal Institute, Zimring's book is a simple study with an ambitious objective: to stop citizens and politicians alike from behaving as if a crime is a crime is a crime.It's not, the authors point out -- some crimes injure and kill people, others don't. Ignoring the distinctions, they say, leads to wasteful legislation like California's three-strikes law, which sends shoplifters to prison for life alongside convicted murderers.Zimring and Hawkins conclude that the U.S. does not have a crime problem so much as a violence problem -- specifically, a lethal-violence problem. They compared crime statistics in the U.S. and other Western nations and got some surprising results: London has more theft and a 57-percent higher burglary rate than New York City. Sydney, Australia, has more burglaries and almost as many thefts as Los Angeles.But when the category is homicide, U.S. cities blow away their foreign counterparts: New York registered 11 times more murders in 1990 than London; Los Angeles 20 times more killings than Sydney. "If the question is, are you more likely to get hit in the face in a bar in Sydney or Oakland, the answer is you're actually more likely to get hit in Sydney," Zimring says. "But if you're talking about murder it's a whole different story."A central problem, the authors say in their book, is guns. "The ready availability of guns and the willingness to use maximum force in interpersonal conflict is the most important single contributor to the high U.S. death rate from violence," they write. America's assault on crime makes for good headlines but bad policy, Zimring argues."It's time for a paradigm shift," he insists. "We should stop trying to fight an all-out war on every front of crime and start spending our precious resources on reducing lethal violence."During an interview in his sunny third-floor office at Old Boalt Hall on the Berkeley campus, Zimring -- who has taught for 31 years but never practiced law -- lays out what he calls "a very non-utopian agenda" for confronting crime. "You ask a law student, 'What happens when your BMW gets stolen?' They know the answer: 'Get a better BMW,'" he says, recalling a classroom exchange also described in his book. "Most crime is a pain in the ass. But when you have life insurance they can't give you your life back." International murder statistics are no secret. The U.S. annually registers more than twice as many homicides as the next most deadly industrialized nation. Naturally, this is of grave concern to the average American, Zimring says, but the anxiety can go too far."We worry about physical harm, death and terror, but then it gets weird," he says. "We start to see those threats in a much wider variety of crimes -- in residential burglaries. We're imagining Willie Horton coming through the window."In the East Bay, the impact of America's all-encompassing fear of crime is felt daily in courthouses, where the landmark 1994 three-strikes law is netting life sentences for nonviolent offenders. Marcus Lynn Austin, 37, is up against his third strike for two residential burglaries he allegedly committed last May. With nine prior convictions -- all for selling drugs, for theft or for burglary -- the Oakland resident faces 38 years to life in prison.Austin's lawyer is troubled by a society that he believes increasingly throws up its hands and tosses all criminals in jail together. "It's frustrating to think that a narcotics addict is probably going to go to prison for the rest of his life alongside murderers and rapists," says Alameda County deputy public defender Jody Nunez. "We've decided that breaking into someone's house is a dangerous thing. I don't want to discount a burglary -- you do feel a sense of violation -- but if someone's going to commit a crime against me, I'd much rather they come and steal my things than steal my life or my family's life."Zimring and Hawkins say that the ongoing crackdown on crimes of all kinds actually reduces law enforcement's ability to attack the lethal violence that seems to be of greatest concern to most Americans. During the 1980s the number of people imprisoned in California quadrupled; the jail and prison population rose by more than 100,000. But in a scenario the authors compare to the "bait-and-switch" strategy employed by auto dealers, the vast majority of that new prison space -- initially prompted by a fear of violent offenders -- has been used to house burglars, petty thieves and drug convicts.The current national agenda, promoted by most Democrats and Republicans, is to decrease the total number of crimes and criminals in our midst. And on that front, the tough new sentencing laws appear to be working. The FBI's annual tally of crimes in 1996, released last October, showed a 10-percent drop in overall crime since a peak earlier this decade. Murders dropped nine percent in the past year alone.Even Nunez's boss, Alameda County public defender Jay Gaskill, begrudgingly acknowledges three strikes' net effect. "The notion of three strikes being a deterrent is exaggerated," Gaskill says. "But it is reducing the crime rate by moving repeat criminals off the streets." Like several of his counterparts in the Alameda County District Attorney's office, Gaskill believes public policy must also address the root causes of crime -- poor education, disintegration of the family, violence in the media. But Zimring and Hawkins say those old approaches stand in the way of their new thinking. Citing comparative crime statistics, the pair reluctantly address "the C-word": cause.In researching the book, the authors sifted through a slew of studies on "causes" of violent crime, including two national commissions on the topic: the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1968-69) headed by the former president's brother, Milton Eisenhower; and the more recent National Academy of Sciences Panel on the Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior, whose members included professor Zimring. The first commission focused on the inner city, concluding that "it is the ghetto slum that is disproportionately responsible for violent crime, by far the most acute aspect of the problem of violence in the United States today." The 1993 National Academy of Sciences panel, in Zimring's words, "just dropped the ball," skirting the tough questions about violence. Other studies on the effects of narcotics trafficking and use, race, poverty and violence in the mass media, the authors argue, are inconclusive at best in pinpointing the uniquely American problem of violent crime."In this country we want to approach the badness in people," Zimring says. "If that were the way we planned for highway safety we wouldn't have saved all the lives we have. In so many areas we've learned to be eclectic in protecting the public safety. All we're asking is that we learn that lesson for lethal violence. We're talking about making crime safer -- I even want to make violence safer. I'm no longer interested in the root causes of anything. I'm interested in the proximate causes of death, maiming and citizen terror."The most important "proximate" cause of lethal violence identified by the authors is guns. In fact, a skeptic might say that this is the hidden agenda of their book.Zimring and Hawkins explore the relationship between the widespread availability of firearms and the likelihood that they'll be used. They call it a self-fulfilling prophecy -- fear of others being armed increases the odds that guns will be owned and used.Jan Miller, president of the San Rafael-based Citizens Against Homicide, says that's just a roundabout soft-on-crime message dressed up in long words. "These people have two things on their mind: gun control and saying anything bad about three-strikes," says Miller, whose daughter was beaten to death in 1984.Miller argues that the "problem" isn't simply violence, it's a lack of respect and civility. "Most kids don't start as murderers, they start with petty theft. They start with disregard for their parents, teachers and peers. And as that disrespect grows and grows, so do the crimes." Noted UCLA professor James Q. Wilson has criticized the scholars' book as thin on solutions. But Zimring says he's more interested in first rethinking the problem.As for policy suggestions, Zimring says he would indeed look hard at gun laws. He'd also reduce sentences for residential burglars. Zimring even quips that he'd "like to give armed robbers a course in residential burglary." But at a time and place where the "get tough on crime" message is used as a badge of honor for everyone to the right of Jerry Brown, the chance seems slim that any let's-get-soft-on-nonviolent-crime agenda will go very far. It's tricky to get people over a fear that so pervades the national consciousness -- and makes for such great newscasts and campaign ads. Zimring insists that his agenda does not advocate an end to finding and fighting the causes of crime."But meanwhile what I'd like to do is lower the body count," he says. "Then crime would be more a major pain in the ass. I think that's real social progress."Jeffrey Roy is a freelance writer who lives in Oakland, California.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.