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July 6, 2006

Taking a look at race, crime & communities:

What do crime-rate trends say about incarceration?

What accounts for the racial imbalance in the number of arrests and convictions in the U.S. criminal justice system?

What do recent trends in crime rates say about the effectiveness of incarceration as a deterrent to serious crime? What do those trends predict for the near future?

Two prominent local researchers weighed in on these and related questions as part of a day-long discussion June 29 titled “Race, Crime and Communities,” sponsored by the School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

Rolf Loeber, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, is the principal investigator on the Pittsburgh Youth Study, a longitudinal assessment study of 1,500 boys for risk factors and mitigating “promotive” factors in the progression of violent behavior. He discussed what that study, begun in 1987, and other longitudinal studies show about the relationship of risk factors to serious delinquency and violence.

Alfred Blumstein, J. Erik Jonsson Professor of Urban Systems and Operations Research at CMU’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management and director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, presented some thoughts on recent national violent crime trends and offered some policy considerations to combat a potential new rise in violent crime.


CMU’s Alfred Blumstein reviewed some recent trends in violent crime by race and age, and then offered some policy recommendations.

His general points included:

• The rate of incarceration in the United States had been remarkably stable between 1925 and 1975, at about 110 per 100,000 population. However, the last 30 years have averaged an increase of 6-8 percent annually.

“The U.S. is now the world leader in prison population, counting prison and jail, with 700 per 100,000,” Blumstein said. “This is driven by the political process: mandatory sentences, three strikes you’re out, catering to public demand for more punitiveness and closing down mental hospitals.”

• Trends over the last 20 years in the murder and robbery rates show a sharp rise beginning in 1985 with the crack cocaine boom. “Then came the start of what has become known as the famous crime drop, a 40-some odd percent decrease in both murder and robbery starting in about 1993 and flattening out in 2000, and impressively flat since then,” he said.

“1980 was a demographic peak in that the baby boomers were growing out of the high crime ages of 18-24. So crime rates were supposed to be coming down, but we saw an important trend revision in about 1985, when young people got recruited into crack markets and some of the phenomena that followed,” Blumstein said.

In 1985 there began a fast rise in the arrest rate for murder among those in their early teenage years and a gradual decline in the later years, after about age 24. “Between ’85 and ’93, there was a dramatic shift in murder arrest rate, where for 18-year-olds, for example, the rate went from about 20 to about 60 arrests for murder per 100,000 population, a very large shift upward,” he said. By 1993, the rate had tripled for 15-year-olds and all the ages 20 and below more than doubled.”

Blumstein said the leveling off of the murder rate largely can be attributed to the bottoming out of the crack market.

“This decline was driven by the fact, as with many drugs, the evils of the drug caught up with the joys and the demand for the drug resulting in a decline, especially of new users,” he said. “We know that the drug markets are a source of violent crime, for a number of reasons, including that dealers can’t resort to civil dispute resolution in the courts, so they have to use violence to resolve their disputes. This is a street market: You’d better carry a gun because you’re vulnerable.”

Some have argued that the drop in crime is most likely explained by the increased incarceration rate, Blumstein said. “We were locking people up at a higher rate and therefore the crime came down is the logic.”

But in the case of crack cocaine, the market is resilient as long as there are replacements for the drug dealers and users who are incarcerated. “There is a limit to the degree in which you can impinge on the drug market through incarceration,” he said.

Moreover, those replacements tend to be younger males, he noted. “A 20-year-old is far more trustworthy with a gun than 15- or 16-year-olds. Young males have always settled disputes by fights but now they were in a much more lethal environment.”

The crack market was particularly distinctive for adding high levels of violence, Blumstein said, fueled by an infusion of handguns.

“One of the consequences in the rise between 1985 and 1993 is that we see guns in the hands of young people and in communities that never had guns before to speak of, coupled with a low threshold of sensitivity to being disrespected and young people resorting to extreme responses.”

The situation also impacted robbery rates because drug sellers need money to start up their activity, he said. “There are three ways people get money: They get it by earning it, they get it by welfare or they get it by stealing it.”

So there are unintended consequences of incarceration, Blumstein maintained. “First, you have a major increase of drug offenders in prison. Then, a response by the crack markets, now run by younger men, with turf battles, fights over bad deals, which created huge levels of violence. That eventually led to some Draconian federal legislation, like the five-year mandatory minimum for 500 grams of [cocaine] powder, but the same five-year mandatory minimum for five grams of crack.”

Crack markets are dominated by blacks as sellers, while powder cocaine markets are dominated by whites and Hispanics as sellers, he noted.

“In terms of policy, rather than the knee-jerk, ‘Let’s lock them all away,’ let’s develop and identify intelligent, innovative rather than absolute drug policies,” Blumstein said. “We need to avoid the opposite dangers of absolute prohibition on the one hand, and complete legalization on the other.”

He noted that European countries had shown lower crime rates by establishing clinics that treat drug addicts in social service settings.

What might be expected with the crime rate in the near future? “I’m very concerned about the economic opportunities for high school dropouts and even for high school graduates as the economy becomes more demanding, with more and more skill levels needed and we have the outsourcing of jobs,” he pointed out. “We’re seeing reduced revenue available for social services, for police budgets. We see city budget woes. And we could see new drug markets opening.”

Society is producing more people with low skill levels, particularly low-income minorities, he said. Pittsburgh saw about a 4 percent rise in violent crime last year, he noted. “I think it’s more likely we’ll see a rise in the crime rate at some point, probably sooner rather than later.”

—Peter Hart

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