Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pigs Through a Python

Back in the late 90s when I was working in DC, at several research conferences I attended, I would hear street-level researchers talk about how the crime wave of the late 80s-early 90s had turned a bunch of children and adolescents off the "coolness" of that culture. Kids were tired of seeing siblings, cousins, uncles, parents, not all of them criminals, killed, maimed, scared witless, or hauled off to prison. Girls, the most powerful force against crime known to man (literally), were turning away more from guys whose long-term prospects included coffins and metal bars. The predictions were that these young people would turn away from crime as they got older and crime rates would head down even more.

Now most of that was the dreaded, disreputable "anecdotal evidence" that is the curse of death for people who have never been in a tornado or bombing and need a representative sample to give them evidence to get out of the way of the next one. But it rang true to me, and subsequent history fits as well. It made me think of crime wave starts and stops as cultural more than structural, that is, more dependent on attitudes than on social restrictions (like a crim just system). It also made me think in terms of the old "pigs through a python" analogy. You know, that appetizing image of the big snake ingesting pig after pig, looking like a declining sine wave (cosine?). Which meant that you could have a spike in crime, like we did with young people in drugs and guns in the 80s and 90s, which would go down as little brothers and sisters swearing off that stuff came of age. The problem would be that, after a period of quiet, the old lessons would be lost, and the new group of young people, again inspired by drugs and guns, would make a comeback about . . . now.

So the recent stories on the recent upsurge of violent crime, like this one in USA Today, on the PERF conference and the continuing UCR increase the first 6 months this year, haven't surprised me. Especially the growth in youth offenses again. These people don't have a clue about prison or "do the crime, do the time." The lessons have been lost.

But if the "pigs" analogy is even halfway right, it calls into question our "solutions" to the last bump through the belly. If the earlier decline was more the result of cultural dissatisfaction and rejection than more cells (and most research agrees that only a quarter, give or take, of the decline was due to incarceration increases, with low incarceration states having as much or more decline than high ones, indicating a national cultural wave), then responding now as we did then will probably not be as fruitful as trying to hasten the cultural feedback of distaste. This isn't an "anti-prison" statement, just trying to analyze realistically. It means that we will need containment strategies that certainly can and should include prison but much more and better. It also means that any real abatement will come due to the communities and cultures themselves down the road in a few years.

What will this produce for corrections and sentencing? Well, we do have history to guide us this time. More news and fear of crime, more political reaction, tougher sentencing, more incarceration. How much "more" and "tougher" is up for grabs, but the current zeal for Jessica's Law and other child/sex offender mandatories gives us a clue not just of punishment orientation but also potential sentencing commission (in)ability to play prescribed roles. (In WI, the state legislature never even looked at the state's commission when discussing and approving its Jessica's Law.) And for those into alternative punishments and cost-effectiveness advocacy, the future, therefore, will probably not be any kinder than it was when the last pig went through. Those things have been the first to go when crime increases meet finite budgets. I wish I could be more hopeful for those of you in this camp, but that's also known as analyzing realistically.

Maybe I'll be proven wrong one more time, and this is just a blip. But the earlier anecdotes would predict that it's not. Anecdotes really have been known to add up to truth, and we may just have to hold on until this pig makes it through.

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