On one of the lifeless, uniform streets of America’s capital a bulky former crack cocaine dealer, who goes by the nom de guerre of Tiny, laments the passing of the old Washington, DC.
“Back then they called it the murder capital of the world. These few blocks here were the murder capital of the murder capital of the world and right here’s where I did my business. Made a lot of money too,” he says, hovering on a corner in the mostly black Trinidadian neighbourhood a few blocks north of that largely white citadel, the Capitol.
“Even sold it down by the White House. Could do anything back then. We owned this city. Now it’s like everywhere else. One giant coffee shop.”
Tiny long ago moved on to the more legal, if less lucrative, and certainly less adrenaline-pumping enterprise of parcel delivery, which is why he is reluctant to give a name other than the one he used to be known by on the streets.
Two decades ago Washington, DC had the highest murder rate in the United States. Now the drive-by shootings that claim the lives of innocent teenagers are infrequent enough to shock and make the newspapers.
Criminologists and sociologists have spent years trying to explain the dramatic slide in violent and other serious crime in the US capital, but it’s not unique to Washington. The latest Federal Bureau of Intelligence figures show that murder, rape, robbery and other serious crimes have fallen to a 48-year low across the country.
In Washington last year 131 people were murdered, the lowest number in half a century. Two decades ago there were 482 homicides in the city amid turf wars among drug gangs and crack-driven violent robberies.
It’s a pattern replicated across the country. In 2009 New York City had the lowest number of murders since detailed FBI records began in 1963. There was a small increase last year but, even so, the total of 536 homicide victims was still well below the 2 245 murdered in 1990, when Times Square was infamous for peep shows and drugs, not the Disney Store.
Twenty years ago the murder rate for the whole of the country was 9.8 per 100 000 people. It has fallen by nearly half, although it is still twice the rate in France.
It’s not just murder. Robberies were down nearly 10% last year and 8% the year before.
There are a score of explanations offered by sociologists for collapsing crime figures, from the theory that it is tied to the legalisation of abortion or the reduction of lead in fuel to the closing of mental institutions.
One theory has it that better medical treatment has reduced the number of murders by saving the lives of assault victims who would otherwise have died. But that doesn’t explain why overall violent crime has also lessened. Anti-gun activists note that the cities with the sharpest falls in murder rates, New York and Washington, have enacted strict gun-control laws by US standards. Yet in Houston, where some regard it as criminal not to own a gun, there has also been a sharp drop in homicides.
One of the most widely accepted explanations is also one of the most politically and socially sensitive, namely that the imposition of sharply stiffer prison sentences since the early 1980s, which has resulted in the US having the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world, has kept large numbers of criminals off the streets.
The US imprisons 2.3-million of its citizens, a number that has risen dramatically since the 1980s, when state legislatures began greatly increasing sentences out of fear of the surging crime rate. “We now incarcerate four times as many people as we did 20 years ago,” said John Roman, the director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute, who has spent years studying crime trends in the city and the US. “Just by sheer size, you’ve removed a lot of potential offenders from the street. I don’t think that’s very popular in many circles, but it’s hard to argue with.”
Roman said that in parallel with an ever-expanding jail population the crack-cocaine epidemic had peaked and collapsed in major cities. The crack epidemic burned itself out, he said, largely because a new generation saw the effect of the drug on older users and was discouraged.
On the streets of Washington, Tiny thinks there is something to both theories. “There’s a lot of guys who were from around here in jail. If you’re black and you do crack, you go to jail for a long time. There’s guys who were selling here with me in the Eighties who are still locked up,” he said. “But I went out of business because nobody wanted to buy any more. Crack got a bad name on the streets.”
Sociologists credit a couple of other important factors for the falling rates of some crimes. It is considerably more difficult than it was 30 years ago to steal a new car, given all the electronic security and houses are better protected.
An explanation favoured by some politicians and police officers traces back to New York’s “zero tolerance” strategy in the early 1990s, which followed the theory that arrests for minor crimes deter major ones and that most serious crimes are committed repeatedly by a small number of hardcore criminals.
Roman is sceptical, saying the strategy went hand in hand with a large increase in the police force, which led to more people being arrested for crimes in general. Also, detaining people for minor crimes, such as jumping the turnstiles at New York subway stations led to a significant number of wanted criminals being nabbed. So, the real effect was not so much to deter as to lock up.
There is no shortage of other theories. One has it that lead poisoning through paint and petrol of a generation raised in the 60s and 70s caused violent behaviour in their teens. Economist Steven Levitt has argued that the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalising abortion reduced the number of criminals by reducing the number of unwanted babies.
There are even those who believe the election of Barack Obama has inspired young black men to steer away from a life of crime, although that works only for the past two years and falls flat when trying to explain the past two decades.
With growing support for the view that lengthy sentences are a leading factor in reducing crime the debate is now shifting to whether that is an argument for maintaining a policy that critics say is disproportionately applied to black men and causes other social damage, including taking fathers away from their children for much of their upbringing.
Roman thinks the policy may have served its purpose: “You can make the case that mass incarceration hastened the end of the crime wave. You would have a much more difficult time making the case that a continuation of that mass incarceration is necessary. We’re investing more and more in prison and getting a smaller and smaller return.”
But the public may not share that view. A recent poll showed most Americans felt crime was still getting worse. —