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Jens SoeringMarch 21, 2005

Overseas, the war in Iraq has exposed the limits of American military might at an enormous and still-growing cost to taxpayers. At home, meanwhile, this nation’s three-decades-long preference for hiding away social problems behind penitentiary walls has produced the ironic result that the land of the free now cages a greater percentage of its own citizenry than any other country in the world. From just under 100 prisoners per 100,000 population in the 1970’s, the incarceration rate in the United States grew to the current world record of 715 per 100,000compared with just 143 per 100,000 for England, 116 for Canada, 80 for France and 50 for Finland. Yet locking up so many Americans has not given this nation a crime rate appreciably lower than those of other industrialized countries. In fact, the domestic crime rate today is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago. The big stick of prison has proved ineffective.

Since neither the comparatively lavish welfare systems of European nations nor the enormous prison systems of the United States have had any noticeable effect on crime rates, perhaps the time has come for this country to accept a certain level of lawlessness as the standard, international price of living in an economically developed society. This is a difficult concept to accept. But the war on crime is no more likely to end with perfect peace and flower-strewn streets than the war in Iraq.

What really needs to be addressed both in the Middle East and in America’s streets and courtrooms is effective problem management: minimizing the harm done to the innocent, lowering the intensity of the conflict, containing the threat and luring the next generation into compliance with authority. This last task is face-to-face, long-term work, but it can be effective if pursued patiently. I know this because for the last 18 years I have lived among those on whom such methods were never tried: my fellow prison inmates. As a long-term convict and student of criminal justice policies, I offer an insider’s perspective on what definitely did not work and what might have worked if it had been tried.

Ineffective Measures

Threats and preaching definitely do not prevent crime, as anyone with even the slightest familiarity with teenagers, in or out of prison, knows. Participants in the first Scared Straight program, for instance, were actually more likely to end up behind bars than a control group of nonparticipants. The U.S. Department of Justice admits that having policemen lecture teens about drugs in Project DARE has been completely ineffective.

The cells around mine are filled with graduates of boot-camps and Scared Straight-type programs. In conversations with me, they express pride over having survived these trials-by-fire and emerged even tougher than before. The man pushed them to the limit; afterward, it was their turn to get some payback on civilians like you.

So why do such programs continue to enjoy popular support? Perhaps because they satisfy an atavistic need to see delinquent youngsters get their comeuppance at the hands of people who are stronger than they arenamely, convicts and cops. Unfortunately, at-risk youths do not enjoy being bullied any more than anyone else does, and they respond to being menaced by becoming more menacing themselves.

Improving Children’s Lives

What does work in crime prevention is the improvement of the lives of poor children while they are growing up.

In 1984, the RAND Corporation, an institution not generally thought of as politically progressive, conducted an in-depth study of the operation of the Chicago Area Project (CAP) over the previous fifty years. CAP organizes slum residents into community committees that work personally with local youths in trouble, improve the physical appearance of neighborhoods and provide recreational facilities for youngsters. According to the study, these efforts proved to be effective in reducing rates of juvenile delinquency.

Likewise, in the Perry Preschool Program, 123 borderline educable mentally handicapped children from an extremely low-income black neighborhood in Ypsilanti, Mich., were enrolled in preschool two years early and visited by their teachers at home once a week for two years. Twenty-seven years later, participants were found to be only one-fifth as likely as a control group of nonparticipants to become habitual criminals, and only one-fourth as likely to be arrested for a drug-related crime. Similar results were found in Syracuse University’s Family Development Research Program, another long-term pilot study that emphasized helping parents raise their children while they were still very young.

These initiatives succeed in preventing crime because they attack the root causes of crime: poverty, absent fathers and abuse.


When I walk out of my cell into my housing unit’s dayroom, I do not see a great many people like myself, a former middle-class white kid now approaching middle age. I see instead, almost without exception, poor blacks, poor whites and poor Hispanics. Now perhaps it is just a coincidence that all these people happened to be living in slums and trailer parks when they used their free will to choose to break the law. Or perhaps there really is a link between poverty and criminal behavior.

This idea is anathema in most of America, of course. If low incomes and social deprivation really do lead to increased rates of lawlessness, then crime might be reduced by redistributing some wealth. But among social scientists, the connection between poverty and criminal behavior has been accepted for a long time: a meta-analysis that appeared in the American Sociological Review in 1981 of 224 previous studies stated that its research had concluded rather convincingly that members of lower social classes were indeed more prone to commit crime. This finding was confirmed by later researchers as well.

A study in 1996/97 of payments made by Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 140 metropolitan areas, which controlled for all sorts of variables and took into account regional differences, found that the higher the welfare payments were, the more the burglary and homicide rates fell. And whereas Europe and the United States have a common crime rate when murder is not factored in, we find that countries spending 12 percent to 14 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on welfare have lower rates of violent crime than the United States, which spends only 4 percent of its G.D.P. on welfare.

Experiences in jail further confirm this phenomenon. What keeps convicts in line behind bars in the Virginia penitentiaries is not more prison guards or tougher rules. It is the judicious apportionment of menial jobs that pay 23 cents to 45 cents an hour. Inmates, who have no other source of income, can easily be seduced into compliance by this method, no matter how tough they pretend to be.

If that sounds terribly cynical, consider: people pay their taxes and obey the speed limit not because they actually enjoy giving their money to the I.R.S. or driving their BMW far below its capabilities, but because they have more to lose if they behave otherwise. When poor people respond to financial incentives by reducing their levels of illegal activity, they are simply obeying the same proven rules of micro-economics in capitalist societies.

The official poverty level for a family of three is $14,480 per year, or $13.22 per person per day for everything: rent, utilities, clothes, food, transportation, medical expenses, educationeverything. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 3.8 million families are so poor that some members have had to skip meals for lack of funds, and another 11 million families reported being afraid they would run out of food. Why is it considered morally offensive and economically unwise in this country to give a poor person a few dollars more than $13.22 per day, but ethically appropriate and fiscally sensible to incarcerate a poor person at an average cost of $55.18 per day?

Fatherless Families

Both juvenile delinquency and poverty have been consistently associated with fatherless homes since the early 19th century. But it is important to note that it is the absence of the father that is the underlying cause of the other two phenomena. Children raised by their mother alone are six times more likely to be poor than similarly situated children raised by both parents. And with only one adult to supervise and act as role model, children (overwhelmingly sons) raised without fathers make up 60 percent of rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers and 70 percent of all long-term inmates. For the 36 percent of all American children who grow up in single-parent families, the future looks grim.

Fathers cannot simply be forced to act responsibly toward their offspring, of course, so the question becomes: what can be done to help poor single mothers raise their children so they are less likely to turn to crime later? One answer appears to be something as simple as home visiting by public health care workers, as in a pilot program called the Prenatal/Early Infancy Project, conducted in Elmira, N.Y., or by teachers, as in the Perry Preschool Program discussed above. According to another RAND Corporation study, parent training and early intervention can reduce crime four to five times as effectively as California’s three-strikes law.

In the penitentiary, practically everyone my age or younger grew up in a single-parent home on the seediest side of town. A young man I met in an inmate meditation group is typical. He came to prison at age 15 (because he was tried as an adult); and now, at age 23, he is about to finish his sentence and return home. But his mother, who is only 38 herself, is dying from the effects of a lifetime of drug abuse. So he has no home to return to, no family or community connections of any kind. A few weeks from now, he will step through the prison gate into a world he last saw as a child and where he knows no one.

What continually surprises me is how many young men like this one tell me that they want to leave their lives of crime behind. In fact, one federal study found that over half of all youths who join gangs tried to quit, and 79 percent said they would leave if given a second chance in life. As far as I can tell, many of my fellow prisoners never had their first chance, never mind their second.

Growing up poor and fatherless unfortunately carries an additional danger that can heighten still further a child’s chances of later becoming a criminal: physical or sexual abuse. Among underclass families, reported cases of maltreatment are three times as frequent as among higher income groups, and such children are then twice as likely to be involved in serious or violent delinquency. Later, as adults, victims of abuse are 38 percent more likely to be arrested for violent crime. Among prison inmates, 16.1 percent of males and 57.2 percent of females report having been physically or sexually maltreated while growing uprates far higher than in the general population.

Among convicts, discussing such things directly is absolutely taboo, of course. But if the dayroom television set is tuned to the local news when the arrest of some particularly odious juvenile offender is reported, one can sometimes hear prisoners discuss how the youngster in question would have behaved differently if only he had been whooped the way they were whooped by their parents. The idea that the leather-belt beatings they suffered as children may have contributed to their own later acts of violence does not seem to occur to these inmates.

The Future

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 17.2 percent of all children - 12.2 million boys and girls - now live below the poverty level. There are over one million substantiated cases of child abuse each year. And out of 32 states evaluated under the Child and Family Services Review for their ability to protect children from child abuse, 28 states failed either all seven criteria or six out of seven.

What does the future hold for these children? It would seem that America is readying a fresh batch of prospective convicts to feed to its jails and penitentiaries. As we have seen above, at least some of those literally millions of lives could be saved.

Prison and welfare are responses to poverty. Unfortunately, in the United States over the last 30 years, the carrot of welfare has been almost totally eliminated in favor of more and larger sticks. A growing prison system was what we had instead of an anti-poverty policy, instead of an employment policy, instead of a comprehensive drug-treatment or mental health policy, says the criminologist Elliott Currie.

In Europe, by contrast, social policies have been designed around the internationally recognized principle of using custodial sentences only when strictly necessary, according to the Danish Prison and Probation Service. Their emphasis on welfare over prisons has had the side effect that only 4 percent of Danish and Norwegian children, and just 6 percent of French and German children, grow up in homes where earnings are less than half the country’s median income.

The question, then, is this: Do you want your tax dollars to be invested early on in the cycle, when they can still improve a child’s life, or at the end of the cycle, when all that is left to do is to lock the cell door after the horse of hope has bolted?

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