(I will get to “Recommendations for the Courts” later in the week.)
Events are moving quickly for activists in Atlanta, a place where a weird confluence of crime, organizing against crime, and Internet connections have torn away the media curtain that ordinarily hangs between the public and public individuals’ experiences of crime and the courts — revealing the abject failure of those courts and our top elected officials to act on public safety.
At this odd moment, I want to offer a little historical perspective on the phenomenon of getting away with crime.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson responded to exploding crime rates in America’s cities by founding the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Crime. Like many efforts of its time, the Commission was heavy on seeking psycho-social “root causes” for criminality. Howard Zinn weighed in on how the “Pigs” should be in prison and the prisoners should roam the streets. And so on.
But those were more civilized days among the elite, which of course included Howard Zinn, his demurral notwithstanding. So the Commission’s report to the President offered a wide range of ideological views on the subject of crime, something that rarely happens in academic conferences today.
Milton S. Eisenhower was one of those old guys whose yellowing Brillo creamed black-and-white visages still stare out at us from office lobbies everywhere. He was, in two words, widely respected. He was the head of Johnson’s crime Commission, and the former President of Johns Hopkins University, and a member of UNESCO, and lots of other things. Here is what Milton S. Eisenhower said to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Crime in 1970:
We live in an urban society. We live in an affluent society. And we live in a society that is violent. In the convergence of those three characteristics lies a central problem for America in the 1970’s.
The best estimate of the number of serious crimes committed in the United States each year is 10 million, of which more than 1.2 Million are violent crimes: homicides, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes, and robberies. According to another estimate, more than 1 out of 100 Americans commits a major violent crime in any one year.
There remains one very obvious reason for mounting crime in our society: the increasing failure of law enforcement agencies to cope with it. Comsider the grim statistics. Probably 10 million serious crimes were committed in the United States last year. About half of those crimes were never reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only 12 percent of those 10 million crimes resulted in the arrest of anyone. Only 6 percent resulted in the conviction of anyone, and this 6 percent included many pleas to lesser offenses. Only 1 1/2 percent resulted in the incarceration of anyone. And of those who were incarcerated, most will return to prison another time for additional offenses. As Lloyd Cutler, eminent lawyer and executive director of the Violence Commission, remarked on these statistics: ‘It would hard to argue that crime does not pay. The sad fact is that our criminal justice system, as presently operated, does not deter, does not detect, does not convict, and does not correct.’
—Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence, ed. Hugh Davis Graham (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1971)
In 1970, our nation’s best minds across the political spectrum agreed that fewer than 2% of those who commit a serious crime even served time for it. That was forty years ago, and it hasn’t changed much.