What should we do about crime? Since the 1980s, the answer has been to get tough on criminals. States and the federal government have adopted policies designed to put more criminals behind bars. Mandatory sentences for certain crimes, trying serious juvenile offenders as adults, and longer, fixed sentences have resulted in a massive increase in prisoners. In 1980, the number of people in U.S. prisons and jails was about 500,000. By 1989, the number had doubled to more than a million. By 2001, the jail and prison population will have oubled again—to 2 million persons. Today, the United States has the second highest rate of incarceration in the world.
This rapidly expanding prison system comes with a cost. New prisons need to be built. Prisoners exceed current capacity by 25 percent. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average annual cost to keep a prisoner behind bars is about $20,000. With 2 million persons behind bars, it costs approximately $40 billion annually to house the nation’s prisoners.
With our prisons bulging and experts predicting a new wave of violent crime, it’s important to look at new strategies for controlling crime. In August 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which authorized spending about $30 billion over a six-year period for various crime-control strategies. Four of these strategies are discussed below along with arguments for and against them.
"Three Strikes and You’re Out"
This crime-control strategy targets career criminals. It mandates a lengthy or life-prison term for a third felony conviction. The "three strikes" provision in the newly enacted federal law requires that the three convictions must be for violent felonies.
About 15 states have adopted "three strikes" laws. L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti has stated that he believes California’s law, which counts any felony as a "third strike," was passed because the citizens of the state were "tired of a system that had a prison revolving-door policy that did not punish or deter. . . ." California’s "three strikes" law requires three-time losers to face a prison term of 25 years to life.
Those favoring "three strikes" argue that by getting the most dangerous repeat offenders off the streets, serious crime will drop dramatically, perhaps by a third. It may drop even more, they say, because the long sentences may deter criminals from committing crimes. They point out that crime has dropped 7.4 percent in California since it adopted "three strikes." Supporters also say that locking up society’s predators for a long time will produce economic benefits like lower security costs and insurance rates.
Opponents of "three strikes" argue that it does not just target dangerous offenders. They point to cases like that of the California ex-con who faces a possible life term for shoplifting. Since "three strikes" applies to so many felons, opponents argue, it will overload the criminal justice system. They predict that many additional prisons will have to be built, housing non-dangerous and aging criminals, and ultimately prisoners will have to be released because taxpayers will rebel against the extravagant costs of "three strikes."
Boot Camp for Young Offenders
About 30 states have established "boot camps" designed chiefly for non-violent young offenders. Also known as "shock incarceration," boot camps provide short-term lockup (usually up to six months) with a daily routine emphasizing military-style discipline, drills, and respect for authority. The young inmates also put in a long day of hard work. Those who fail the program are sent on to a regular adult prison.
Advocates say that boot camps give young offenders a chance to change their ways. They also say that boot camps keep youthful first-timers apart from hardened offenders, who might influence the young offenders. Moreover, advocates say that boot camps, which are cheaper to run than main-line prisons, free up prison space for hardened career criminals.
Critics reply that there is no proof that strict military-type discipline will straighten out young criminals. They cite studies that show the rate of repeat offenders does not differ much between boot camp graduates and those put on probation or in a regular jail. Critics argue that the "yes sir" attitude instilled in boot camp soon disappears once the offender returns to the old neighborhood.
Each year about 640,000 violent crimes, including 16,000 murders are committed with guns, mostly handguns. Americans possess more than 200 million firearms.
Can gun control laws stop this violence? Americans have highly conflicting views on gun control. Americans overwhelmingly favor the idea of gun control laws, but the majority also oppose an outright ban on handguns.
In 1994, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act required a five-day waiting period for all handgun purchases and background checks on purchasers of handguns. However, in the 1997 case of Prinz v. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled that the background checks were unconstitutional on the grounds that "the Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program." As a result of this decision, the Senate approved a 1998 amendment to the Brady Act requiring gun dealers to conduct computerized background checks, thereby circumventing the constitutional issue raised by involving the local police.
In addition to the Brady Act, several other important pieces of legislation regarding gun control have been enacted in the past few years. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act bans for 10 years the manufacture and possession of 19 military assault weapons. In 1998 and 1999, Senate passed legislation requiring a trigger lock mechanism to be included with every new handgun and providing federal grants for gun safety education programs. Other proposed laws would sharply increase taxes on the sale of guns and bullets, require gun purchasers to possess a state firearms license, and force gun owners to register their firearms with local police.
Supporters of gun control point to other Western democracies, which have strict gun control laws and far lower rates of violent crime. They argue that strict gun control laws will reduce violent crime.
Opponents of gun control say that such laws have no effect on criminals. They point to Washington, D.C.: It has in effect banned handguns and still has one of the worst murder rates in the country. Gun control laws, they say, only make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to buy firearms, which they believe is a citizen’s right under the Constitution. Opponents favor tougher laws against criminals who use firearms.
The 1994 federal crime control law provides nearly $7 billion for crime prevention efforts. These efforts include such things as job training, counseling, and constructive recreational and physical activities. For example, a program in Fort Meyers, Florida, reportedly has reduced juvenile crime by providing tutoring, sports, and dance lessons for at-risk youth.
Perhaps the most controversial crime prevention program for young men is "midnight basketball." Operating now in about 50 cities, midnight basketball draws young adults off the streets in crime-prone neighborhoods at night. Those who want to play must also agree to participate in classes on such topics as drug education, AIDS prevention, and job preparation.
Supporters of prevention programs think it’s smarter to guide young people away from trouble in the first place rather than reacting once they get in trouble. Supporters also point out that it’s far cheaper: The most expensive prevention program, family counseling, costs about $1,200 per juvenile a year versus about $15,000 for a year in prison.
Those who criticize crime prevention programs often dismiss them as little more than useless social welfare that wastes the taxpayers’ money. These critics would much rather spend the money for more police on the streets and prisons to lock up career criminals.
For Discussion and Writing
1. Which crime strategies seem the most effective? The least effective? Why?
2. In 1994, Congress authorized about $30 billion to fight crime over a six-year period. How would you divide that money among the following crime control strategies?
$ XXXXXXXfor constructing more prisons
$ XXXXXXXfor setting up more boot camps
$ XXXXXXXfor hiring more police officers
$ XXXXXXXfor expanding youth crime prevention programs
Justify your division of the $30 billion.
3. What are the most serious crime problems in your community? What do you think are the best ways to combat these crime problems?
For Further Reading
Organized Crime: A Crime Statistics Site: This web site is a one-stop crime statistics tutorial, search engine and link guide.
U.S. Prison Population Rising: An associated press article discussing recent trends in the U.S. incarceration rate and its relationship to the crime rate.
A C T I V I T Y
What Should Be Done About Crime?
In this activity, the class will divide into four study groups. Each group will investigate and report to the class its recommendation on one of the following crime control questions:
1. Is "three strikes" a good idea?
2. Should more "boot camps" be built for young offenders?
3. Should more gun control laws be passed?
4. Should more money be spent for youth crime prevention programs?
1. All group members should read the section of the article relating to their crime-control question.
2. The group should assign different members to:
a. identify and be able to explain the facts about the crime control strategy.
b. list and be able to explain as many arguments as possible in favor of the crime control strategy.
c. list and be able to explain as many arguments as possible against the crime control strategy.
3. All group members should share the results of their investigation with each other.
- All group members should discuss and then decide on an answer to their crime control question.
- One or more members of the group should explain to the class each of the following: the crime strategy studied, the pro and con arguments, and the recommendation on the crime control question reached by the group.