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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The overall U.S. crime rate has been dropping steadily since the early '90's, but some caution that tough economic times could drive crime rates back up. When it comes to white-collar crime, our punishment is too lax. An old saying goes, some will rob you with a six gun, some with the fountain pen.

We're going to take a deeper look at what crime is, how it's tracked and punished in a month-long series launching today. Here to give us the big picture, we've got Franklin Zimring. He's the William G. Simon professor of law at the UC Berkeley and the author of "The Great American Crime Decline." Welcome to News & Notes.

Professor FRANKLIN ZIMRING (School of Law, University of California Berkeley): Well, thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: All right. I have to ask this basic question. How do you define crime?

Prof. ZIMRING: Well, the basic question has one short answer and then gets a little more complicated. The short answer is that anything that a legislature says, a law giver says is a crime is a crime.

But when you go behind that, and then you say, yeah, but what's the difference between the ways in which the law defines things as crime and the others ways that states regulate, what makes the criminal part of governmental power special is that the state gets into the business of first of all trying to prohibit rather than regulate behavior and then secondly, punishing people - making them hurt deliberately if they violate the law.

So we try and get people - to discourage, you know, to smoke less and to drink less alcohol because we tax it, and we allow only adults to drink it. Those are methods of regulation. But with cocaine and marijuana, we pass a criminal law, and we say you can't really do it at all, and if you do, we're going to harm you deliberately to back up our intention to prohibit.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me ask you about the topic of your book, "The Great American Crime Decline." You mention drug crimes and, you know, how drugs are differentiated, alcohol being a drug but legal, of course. But we have talked a lot on our show about particularly drug crimes and how they have helped the prison system, you know, expand in terms of the number of people. But you are saying that crime itself has been going down.

Prof. ZIMRING: Well again, crime itself is everything that the legislature says is criminal. But if you restrict it to the sort of conventional street crimes that most people are worried about and that 75 percent of those are non-violent crimes against property, theft, and burglary, and auto theft - the other 25 percent are violent crimes, snd during the period from 1991 to about 2000, all over this country, crime declined and declined quite substantially by about a third.

So there was in that decade, the 1990s, a drop that was unprecedented in its length and just about as large as we've had in 20th-century American history. That stopped as a national pattern in about the year 2000. And what happened then was that crime stayed flat at its nearly low levels.

And then in the middle of this new decade, around 2004, what happened is crime rates went up in some places but continued going down in New York City and were flat in most other places. So we now have a somewhat less robust trend to discuss. The good news is that we're still much closer to the low levels of 2000.

CHIDEYA: Mmhmm. Let's me jump in here because we don't have too much time left, and I want to be sure and ask you about what other systems do about crimes that we consider common - whether or not that fear is overstated. But when you talked about the kind of punishment that is given out for a drug crime or even a crime against a person, is there a great difference between how the U.S. system tends to treat these crimes...

Prof. ZIMRING: Well, there isn't...

CHIDEYA: Versus other counties...

Prof. ZIMRING: Yeah, if you take a look at the punishments that modern states have to invoke, there isn't a difference in terms of the variety of punishments that are available. Prison is at the top of the things that we can do. It's the most serious, and it's also incapacitated. Everything else finds a compulsory service (unintelligible) is considered much less drastic.

And the big difference between the United States and other developed countries is not that we have different kinds of punishments, but that we use the severe punishments much more. The imprisonment rate in the United States is five or six times the imprisonment rate in other developed countries that we like to compare ourselves to.

Now, people say, well, that's because our crime rates are higher, and that turns out not to be the case. That for almost all kinds of criminal behavior, certainly crimes against property and even low-level violence, the amazing thing when you look at transnational comparisons is that most of the developed countries in the world are in the same boat - have roughly similar crime rates...

CHIDEYA: OK.

Prof. ZIMRING: Where the U.S. stands out is in life-threatening violence there. While we have rates which are lower than some non-developed areas, they are much higher than the Europeans and the Canadians and the Australians. So... ..TEXT: CHIDEYA: Well, professor, we have to wrap up here, but thank you so much.

Prof. ZIMRING: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking with Franklin Zimring. He's the William G. Simon professor of law at UC Berkeley and the author of "The Great American Crime Decline." He joined us from the studios of UC Berkeley. And next on New & Notes, we take a look at white-collar crime from the Enron fraud case to the Bernie Madoff investigation.

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