Is It Time to Give Up Aggressive Crime-Fighting?

Patrick Sharkey’s new book is the latest entry in the post-crime wave literature. Where do we go from here, asks the professor of sociology at New York University, now that we know that the crime decline is real but that many Americans are angry about how we got here?

The activists and academics don’t like the punitive criminal justice system that helped restore the peace. They especially don’t like aggressive incarceration and policing. Sharkey finds these measures anachronistic. If we poured money into local community organizations, he argues, it would simultaneously reduce urban poverty and prevent crime. He favors a single umbrella organization for each community (never mind that the boundaries of these “communities” are vague) to oversee a customized local plan to bolster mixed-income housing, educate for college, improve health care, provide jobs, and ensure public safety.

In short, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence would resuscitate the liberal dream of crime control through social programs.

The notion of federal money for community organizations is not new. It dates back to the mid-1960s and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the centerpiece of which was “community action,” the participation of the poor in framing and administering their own programs. Millions of dollars were funneled from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to community organizations all across the United States. We know what happened next. By the late 1960s, crime began to soar and black urban neighborhoods erupted in massive riots. The Great Crime Tsunami was underway. When the disturbances erupted and Johnson was asked what advice he thought a riot commission should give, he responded drily: “No reward for rioters. . . . No money.”[1]

Is there a lesson here for Sharkey? Some say these antipoverty programs encouraged the violence by holding out a promise of immediate economic advancement. (See Alexis de Tocqueville’s raised expectations theory of the French Revolution.) Others say the War on Poverty didn’t get a fair try and that if only LBJ had stayed the course it would have succeeded. Sharkey’s task is to prove that we really could prevent the next crime wave and reduce urban poverty by supporting local community organizations.

To believe we could is to assume that crime and urban poverty are linked. They are in a sense, since crimes of violence and property crimes (other than fraud and embezzlement) are the poor man’s province. But the connection is complicated.

Since 1980, inequality increased in the United States largely because the rich got much richer. But the aggregate number of impoverished people and the proportion of the total population in poverty actually declined (from 11.5 percent of families in poverty in 1980 to 10.7 percent in 2016). For black Americans the reductions in the impoverished population were greater still. In 1980, 31 percent of African American families were below the poverty line; by 2016, only 20 percent were, which is a drop of 35 percent.[2]

When Sharkey speaks of urban poverty, he seems to be talking about the number of poor and isolated neighborhoods in America’s cities. His insight is that there are fewer such neighborhoods since the 1990s because, as crime declined, more affluent people moved in. (Two cheers for gentrification!) Consequently, these locales became less poor and less isolated—and also less criminally inclined. He posits that the decline in the number of disadvantaged communities reduced crime, and so if we strengthen these communities by pumping money into local organizations, this would keep them safe.

To demonstrate the relationship between community organizations and crime, Sharkey and two doctoral students studied the correlation between crime rates and selected nonprofit organizations in 264 large American cities from 1990 to 2013. The study found that each new organization correlated with a decline in crime in its home city of less than 1 percent. Since we know that the crime decline was massive during this time period—crime rates plunged anywhere from 50 to 75 percent—even Sharkey’s own calculations suggest a very modest contribution by these organizations.

But there’s more: It’s at least as likely that the fall of crime in urban neighborhoods encouraged the formation of community organizations as that it happened the other way around. Sharkey’s study showed that the number of organizations increased nearly threefold, from 13.8 per 100,000 persons in 1990 (when crime went through the roof) to 38.3 in 2013 (when crime was low), partly due to more federal funding—but perhaps also due to the improved atmosphere in cities, including major reductions in violence. In other words, low crime produces community activity along with myriad other advantages.

This brings us to the part of Uneasy Peace that in fact is quite persuasive: the benefits of the great crime decline. Sharkey devotes an entire chapter to the improvements in the lives of African Americans, including the preservation of young life previously cut short by gang violence; higher life expectancy for black males; stress-reduction due to a decreased fear of violence; even an improvement in school performance as schools become safer learning environments and anxiety over assault diminishes. And as the author correctly observes, the crime decline was greater in poorer communities, many of which were (and are) populated by low-income African Americans.

To his credit, Sharkey acknowledges that these benefits accrued as a consequence of the crime decline. He also acknowledges that this decline happened because of mass incarceration and a ramped up criminal justice system, the presence of more “guardians” in urban spaces (cops, private security, CCTV), plus (his pet factor) the work of local community organizations. What he goes on to suggest is that, while the aggressive approach was necessary to reduce crime in the early 1990s, at this point we need to move on. Community organizations—heavily funded ones—could now prevent a new crime wave and reduce the number of poor neighborhoods.

Mark me skeptical. For just as the crime decline enabled community organizations to multiply, the crime decline is likely also responsible for the economic recovery of our central cities. As the University of Pennsylvania’s John DiIulio recognized three decades ago, economic weakness doesn’t cause crime, but crime causes economic decline. “Much of the poverty and joblessness in these [underclass] neighborhoods,” wrote DiIulio, “can be laid at the door of criminals whose presence deters local business activity.”

Sharkey, at certain points in the book, seems to agree. “When violence begins to fall,” he writes, “economic activity reemerges in the community, and opportunities open up.” Young people stay in school when classrooms are safer, businesses return, jobs reappear, and upward mobility is possible once again.

If this is true—if low crime generates not just community organizations but economic growth—then perhaps low crime is the real key. Community organizations might benefit their neighborhoods (though they often do more for the people they employ than their putative clients), and their presence might counter a sense of powerlessness in today’s bureaucratically governed big cities, but . . . prevent another crime wave? Sharkey will have to provide more evidence to persuade me of this.

The last tidal wave of crime—set off by the migration of high-crime populations to big cities, an overwhelmed criminal justice system, a youth population boom, and (in the tsunami’s final years) violent drug-distribution gangs—rendered helpless the then-existing local community organizations. If the ominous forces that underlie crime waves were to gather once again, I suspect that local organizations would not be able to do much to stem the tide.

[1] See U.S. Census, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016.

[2] Sidney Fine, Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967 (University of Michigan Press, 1989), p. 313.