I’ve been writing this week about the predictable reactions to the semi-annual release of the Uniform Crime Report statistics.

In Atlanta, much is being made of the fact that violent crime is down.  However, burglaries and larcenies are up — substantially.  Why might this be?

Maybe it has something to do with the courts.

In 1994, Georgia passed a “serious violent felony” law imposing a minimum ten-year sentence for the following violent crimes: murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery (here is an interesting law review article by Brian D. Boreman on the law).

Georgia’s law varies from minimum mandatory laws in some other states: it assigns strict “first-strike” minimums to a short list of unambiguously heinous crimes, rather than including crimes like burglary and theft.

For “serious, violent felonies,” the law removes judicial discretion:

[A]ny person convicted of a serious violent felony . . . shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of ten years and no portion of the mandatory minimum sentence imposed shall be suspended, stayed, probated, deferred, or withheld by the sentencing court and shall not be reduced by any form of pardon, parole, or commutation of sentence.

Meanwhile, the legislature essentially left property crime and other felonies to the discretion of the judges.  There are repeat offender laws applying to these crimes, but they still contain a default to judicial discretion.

We all know how that washes out.

Violent crime began dropping in Georgia and in other states as soon as minimum mandatory laws were put into place.  Is this surprising?  These laws were enacted precisely because people were committing five, ten, or more violent crimes before any judge bothered to remove them from the streets, if then (of course, the defense bar and its judges have vigorously sought and found ways around these laws, but that is a subject for another day).  Deterrence works.  Incarceration works.

The fact that incarceration works, however, is not a message that sits well with criminologists and journalists.  The effect, and success of these laws does not receive much academic attention or news coverage. Exactly one year ago, when the activist Pew Foundation began beating the anti-incarceration drum again, Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), had this to say in a letter to the Washington Post (and it speaks volumes that he was forced to say it in a letter, in response to the Post’s anti-incarceration biased coverage):

The Price of Leniency

The June 12 news story “New Criminal Record: 7.2 Million,” on the number of people under supervision in the nation’s criminal justice system, reported on the financial burden of running correctional systems without mentioning the savings resulting from crimes averted. Experience suggests that shortened sentences and reduced supervision of offenders released from prison carry a higher cost, especially in human terms, than the savings these shortsighted policies generate.

In 2006, the most recent year for which complete data are available, police received the fewest reports of violent crime and property crime since 1977. What was the cause? Research has shown that, with some exceptions, crime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises. In other words, while the number of people under correctional supervision has gone up, crime has gone down.

Research on state prisoners shows that among drug offenders, nearly 67 percent were rearrested within three years of release. For violent offenders, nearly 62 percent were rearrested within three years of release. Overall, more than 67 percent of prisoners were rearrested within three years for committing new offenses.

The cost of these new crimes goes beyond prisons. The most conservative estimate for the cost of violent and property crimes in the United States is more than $17 billion a year — and that’s just direct, immediate cost. This leaves out such costs as crime victims’ struggle to be made whole.

Let there be no mistake — releasing criminals early may save money in the short term, but not in the long term.

Jeffrey L. Sedgwick

Director

Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice

“[C]rime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises.”  Georgia has a law that removed judicial discretion (read: leniency) from cases involving violent crime but no law that effectively restricts judicial discretion in cases of property crime: violent crime is down in Atlanta, but property crime is up.

I said a few days ago that I would be talking about two crimes I did not report to the police.  The second one happened when I was in Atlanta two weeks ago.  I was at the Wal-Mart on Cobb Parkway, in south Marietta.  Walking from my car to the store, I saw a man going up and down the rows of cars, looking inside each one of them.  When I came out half an hour later, he was near my car, checking the door handle of a car nearby.  I noticed an SUV waiting behind him.  I walked towards the man, then past him, and when I turned around, he jumped into the SUV.

The man looked suspicious as I was going into the store.  When I saw him again, still looking into car windows, I was sure he was casing cars.

So why didn’t I do something?  I was overwhelmed at the time, dealing with a death in the family.  I didn’t trust my instincts.  I knew I could not handle being put in the position of having to argue with some recalcitrant 911 operator with an attitude, as I had done so many times before in Atlanta [the 911 system in Atlanta is a criminal’s best friend].

And I was intimidated.  I hadn’t been paying attention until I saw the man the second time, and by then I was ten feet from him.  It was the middle of the day, and the only other people in that part of the parking lot were a man with a small child.  What was I going to do, say: “Hey, you, stop looking in cars”?  “Citizen arrest”?   It would have been stupid to say anything, but I think showed on my face that I realized what the man was doing.

Once I got in my car, I thought of what might have happened if somebody came out while the man was trying to break into their car.  He was a wired and nasty-looking person: what if someone startled him?  What about the man with his child in a cart, the cart in the driving lane?  What if somebody had a gun?  The experience was unnerving.  Yet, if the man had been caught, would he even have been punished, or simply let go by some overwhelmed prosecutor or judge basking in magnanimousness?

For every crime that gets reported, how many actually take place?

Is theft really non-violent?

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