Study Highlights Issues of Race and Crime

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A recent report from the Justice Department says the crime rate in America remains at a 30-year low. It may be good news to some — but for others, there are crucial issues needing more attention, such as the massive incarceration rate, the impact of public policy in urban areas and a misconception of the truth regarding crime in communities of color. Ed Gordon discusses these issues with Paul Butler, law professor at George Washington University and Nathan McCall, journalism professor at Emory University

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The crime rate in the United States is at a 30-year low. That's according to a report issued this week by the Justice Department. The annual study found that robbery, assaults and other felonies are at the lowest level since the government began surveying victims in 1973. In spite of these encouraging numbers, some people, many of whom are black, still live in fear and the stark reality of violent crimes facing them every day.

To explore this topic, we're joined by former federal prosecutor Paul Butler. He is a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC. And we'll also hope to be joined in just a few moments by former Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall. He is a journalism professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

Mr. Butler, thanks very much for joining us. Greatly appreciate it. Let's talk about these statistics and numbers up front. They can sometimes be deceiving, but on a whole, should we see this as encouraging or a wash?

Professor PAUL BUTLER (George Washington University): Well, it's great news. The fact that the crime rate is going down means that our streets are safer, and that's true for everybody, for African-Americans as well as other members of the community. We do have to be concerned that the rates in African-American communities aren't going down as much, and that blacks, especially young black men, are most likely to be victims of crime. So, as in so many other areas of our society, there's still a disparity, a racial disparity.

GORDON: And in that racial disparity, we also see--and it continues to escalate, unfortunately--that in terms of victimization, African-Americans are still the highest rung on the ladder.

Prof. BUTLER: Yes. And so I think that means that we really ought to listen to the suggestions of African-Americans about our criminal justice policy. Why is that? It's because we are most likely to be victims of crime. We're also most likely to be incarcerated. And so we're going to consider concerns about the fairness of the system, but we're also going to consider public safety.

GORDON: What of the idea of the psychological and social ramifications of all that African Americans and other minorities in this country have to deal with? Ofttimes, we do not see the judicial system and cold statistical numbers take a look at all of the aspects that cause crime today.

Prof. BUTLER: Well, that's so true, Ed. We have to think about first the costs of incarceration. In many African-American urban communities, young men are virtually absent. There are more young men, young black men in prison than in college. And our family system is being devastated because so many of our young men are locked up. So we have to consider both the costs of incarceration as well as the cost of crime.

But again, there's good news. The crime rates in general are going down, including rates of violent crime. There have been remarkable success at reducing certain kinds of crime. There was this big crack epidemic you'll recall in the late 1980s, and there was a lot of violent crime associated with that. Through a public health campaign, more than through an incarceration campaign, we dramatically reduced that crime. The kind of catchphrase was `Crack is whack.' Well, you know what? It was true and it worked. So many fewer people use crack now, and that rate went way down. So we've got to use that as a successful model and think about public education rather than incarceration as a way to make our streets safer and reduce the rates of incarceration.

GORDON: What else can we look to? I mean, obviously, you bring up the phenomenon of crack, and we should note, as you did, and underscore it, the idea that not only was crack use such an incestuous drug that it permeated many communities, but it also walked hand-in-hand with violent crime, unlike some other drugs. Talk to me about what other factors we can look at in terms of this reduction in crime.

Prof. BUTLER: Well, really, the most important factor is demographics. People who commit street crimes are most often men between 15 and 25. When there are fewer of those men in the population, the crime rate goes down. When there are more, the crime rate goes up. Other factors include the economy, especially focused, you know, on the rates of employment, on high school graduation. If we could just get more young black men to graduate from high school, we'd dramatically reduce, again, both their crimes rate and the rates of incarceration.

GORDON: Let me ask this. One might be--and we should note when you look at statistics, there is a lag of time in terms of when the numbers were actually taken, then calculated and compulated and then released. But that being said, one will take a look at an economy that is, at best, tenuous right now and concern themselves with the idea that as go the economy often goes crime statistics. Should we be looking at factors, external factors, like that?

Prof. BUTLER: Well, absolutely. And again, we know if there's a higher rate of unemployment, that crime rate's going to go up. And we know that that the unemployment rate for African Americans is always at least twice that of other Americans, and so that's something to be concerned about. You know, people think of some of our employment and educational policies as kind of liberal pie-in-the-sky stuff, but there's a connection between that and public safety. If we want safe streets, then we have to work toward full employment.

GORDON: Paul Butler, what of those--and sometimes we can be lulled to sleep by numbers like this, to say, `See, we're doing OK, we're doing better.' But there are a lot of people, unfortunately, more than we need to see, quite frankly, in the African-American community, in particular, who still live with the specter and fear of crime as a daily visitor.

Prof. BUTLER: That's so true, but the thing is not to get discouraged and to think that crime is inevitable. So again, there's so many policies that we know that work. One is economic integration. Again, we've been focused a lot on racial integration, and that's important for some social reasons. But if we want kids to get the best education possible--and again, if we want safer streets--one of the things to do is to make sure that we have mixed communities in terms of income, so that we have poor children not only going to school and living in communities with other poor kids, but also with middle-income kids. That surprisingly has a significant impact on crime.

GORDON: You know, we've heard so much in the last year about that, this economic integration. Talk to us about why that works, Paul Butler, because it isn't just the idea of the juxtaposition of a poor person next to someone who has means.

Prof. BUTLER: Well, in part, it's because where the people with more money are, the resources are, so it's not just that you have middle-income people. It's that you have better schools. You have better after-school programs. You have kids who have more incentive who are being encouraged to go to college, which is really going to get them to go to high school. Can't emphasize enough how important it is to get our children to graduate from high school. They don't even have to go to college. If they graduate from high school, by and large, they do not commit the kinds of streets crimes that are the subjects of these statistics.

GORDON: What can be done by individuals, in your estimation, who are not, again--and I don't want to beat a dead horse, to a degree, but I want to make sure that those who have not seen the upswing of these numbers find hope. What can individuals do who perhaps live in a crime-laden community?

Prof. BUTLER: Well, you know, Ed, mentoring is so important, so to join some kind of Big Brothers program or hook up with Concerned Black Men or another neighborhood organization--The RAND Corporation did a study that looked at ways to reduce crime and to keep people out of jail, and it found that the number-one most successful way was, again, getting kids to graduate from high school. One way to do that, politically unpopular, is to pay kids to go to school. Again, most politicians will say that's just not going to fly. The thing is, it works. It's more effective, and it's less costly than locking up people, which costs about $25,000 a year.

Another benefit of mentoring, Ed, is when people educate mothers, when they educate young women, a number of whom are these babies who are having babies, it found that that has a significant rate on keeping their children out of prison and also reducing the crime rate. Again, a lot of young people and mothers, women, are being disproportionately burdened with the costs of raising kids. They'd like to do a better job, but they're not sure how. It's something that can be taught, and it's something that a lot of older people in our community know a whole lot about. So again, just getting involved in the community in these very hands-on ways, it turns out, makes the streets safer and, again, reduces some of the horrible effects of the mass incarceration of young black people.

GORDON: And I know, speaking of incarceration, one of the things that you want people to understand is that we have to take preventative measures before young people get in trouble, because prison, as we have found over the years, is not--and I underline that, is not--a rehabilitative institution.

Prof. BUTLER: Well, it's more like a finishing school for criminals. Again, what we're finding is some people there for non-violent crime, maybe a drug possession or a minor drug selling, and they go there, they learn how to be a really good crook, and they come out, and it's not like they move to the rich white neighborhoods. They move right back to the inner city, and they practice what they've learned.

One of the concerns, Ed, of this mass incarceration, when you have one out of three young black men either in prison, on probation or parole or awaiting trial, is that now in the inner city, going to jail is like a rite of passage, and that has a bad impact on the way the people view jail. It's supposed to be a stigma. It's supposed to be something that you want to avoid. But now, with so many young men locked up, people are starting to think of it as something normal...

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. BUTLER: ...and again, that's just not going to be helpful for anybody.

GORDON: Yeah. It is truly, Paul Butler, a strange dynamic in our community, unfortunately, and we hope that we'll be able to stem the tide and turn the corner there. Paul Butler, law professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, thanks so very much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Prof. BUTLER: It was great to be here, Ed.

GORDON: All right.

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