View attachment 48058 Starting in the late 1960s, the United States suffered the biggest sustained rise in violent crime in its history — because of the demographic bump of the baby boom, an increase in drug use and trafficking and the softening of judges and prosecutors. Barry Latzer, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, tracks what happened in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America.” In this excerpt, Latzer explains how and why the tide finally turned in the late 1990s.
America woke from its crime nightmare during the last decade of the 20th century. The cocaine war was over, muggings were on the wane and cities were becoming as safe as they had been before the long ordeal began in the late 1960s. For those in the business of analyzing crime, the great downturn of the 1990s was a lesson in humility. None of the usual suspects seemed to account for the good news.
While the economic data of the 1990s were extremely positive, and African-American conditions in particular improved greatly, there were givebacks in the new century. And when the economy tanked altogether after 2007, crime continued to fall. The new immigration, on balance, was also a wash. Hispanic immigrants probably caused more crime than not, and Asian and Eastern European entrants were too few in number and too dispersed to significantly reduce crime rates in the vastness of the United States.
One of the few things that is unquestionably true is that the baby-boom generation — the “wild bunch” responsible for the massive escalation of violence that began in the late 1960s — began to age out of crime in the 1980s.
Someone born in the peak childbirth year, 1947, would have been 33 in 1980, which is close to retirement age for violent criminals. But note that there’s a huge homicide bulge centered around the early 1990s, as armed youth drug gangs single-handedly drove the killing rates to unprecedented peaks. This younger cohort’s turn to less lethal behaviors in the second half of the decade needs explaining, and that change, of course, cannot be attributed to the aging of the boomers. Why, then, did the new post-1960s generation — the cohort born in the 1970s — become less violent after the mid-1990s?
Fear of Drugs
Two interrelated factors were crucial in the great turn from violent crime by the 1970s cohorts. First, the cocaine epidemic ran its course, taking down with it all of the associated crimes of violence. Second, a revivified criminal-justice system — more aggressive policing and increased imprisonment of offenders — removed from circulation some of the most dangerous criminals.
Abandonment of cocaine by the age cohort born after 1970 is measurable. US Justice Department funding enabled researchers to track changes in offender drug use. Investigators interviewed and sampled the urine of over 13,000 persons arrested in Manhattan between 1987 and 1997, from roughly the onset to the decline of the crack epidemic. Analysts were able to determine the proportion of offenders who were using drugs and, just as significant, the types of drugs they used and the ages of the users.
The heroin injectors, it turns out, were baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1954. Arrestees born between 1955 and 1969, as samples showed, had turned to crack cocaine. But among arrestees born in the 1970s — the same cohort that had driven up murder rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s — crack cocaine use fell off dramatically. Nearly half of those born before 1969 reported the use of cocaine; for those born in 1972, the figure plummeted to 20%.
What’s more, the rejection of crack stuck with subsequent adolescent cohorts. Test subjects born in 1979, who would have reached their prime years for violence in the second half of the 1990s, had less than a 5% usage rate. Ethnographic research confirmed the sharp curtailment of cocaine use. Richard Curtis spent 10 years, from 1987 to 1997, conducting fieldwork in several Hispanic neighborhoods in Brooklyn. He noted firsthand the devastation wrought by drugs, followed in the mid-1990s by what he called “an improbable transformation” motivated by fear of drugs and their consequences.
The extraordinarily negative effects of crack use — addiction, ill health, incarceration and the loss of virtually all socially acceptable opportunities for self-advancement — were always present and perhaps always understood by users. But as with other risky behaviors indulged by youth, the negatives simply were ignored. So vulnerable were they to peer influences that death itself didn’t seem to matter to these young “crackheads.”
Once crack became unacceptable to peers, however, once the whole crack subculture became socially disreputable on the streets, it was abandoned just as quickly as it had been adopted. As soon as crack fell out of favor, robbery to support habits, killing to protect distribution operations and a plethora of violent and nonviolent offenses associated with its use also petered out.
Just as teen faddism rapidly established the crack craze in the first place, the same contagion effect helped ensure its decline. The results (as Curtis’ Brooklyn study recounted) were transformative. Neighborhoods that had been cocaine war zones, scarcely fit for law-abiding residents, saw massive declines in violence.
Poor black urban areas, where cocaine gangs once flourished, became the scenes of some of the biggest declines in crime. In five New York City police precincts with populations that were over 80% black and suffered from high poverty, including Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, the murder rate dropped a remarkable 78% in the 1990s, even outdoing the citywide rate decline by 5%. These precincts had had staggering homicide rates in 1990: from two to four times the rate for the city overall.
The second crucial reason for the diminution of crime by the 1970s cohort was the reconstitution of the criminal-justice system. When crime first shot up in the late 1960s, the system was overwhelmed. The number of arrests per reported crime went down, not up; sentencing to prison occurred less often, not more; and prison time served for serious crimes actually shortened, not lengthened.
By the 1980s, however, most of the flabbiness in the system had been, or soon would be, reversed. Although police clearance rates did not improve (indeed, they stayed level or declined), the size of police forces grew and, perhaps more important, law enforcement adopted smarter tactics. Some of the new practices — CompStat and hot-spots policing, most notably — seem to have been effective.
A more recent study of crime in the Big Apple concurs. The NYPD, wrote Franklin Zimring, “placed successful emphasis on suppressing public open air drug markets. The first drug priority for policing was driving drug trade from public to private space. For a variety of reasons, this also may have reduced the risk of conflict and violence associated with contests over drug turf.” In other words, police antidrug tactics worked not only to drive down the public drug trade — a great good in itself — but also to bring down the killing and other violence associated with it, a wonderful collateral benefit.
Incarceration for drug crimes, which, strictly speaking, are not considered crimes of violence, nevertheless contributed to the decline in violent crime, given the propensity of the cocaine offenders to engage in violence. All told, the revitalized criminal justice system was a big gun in the crime-reduction arsenal, but its implementation was not without costs. Exceptionally high minority incarceration rates and collateral restrictions on prisoners once released, as well as huge taxpayer expenses for building and maintaining prisons and increasing the size of police departments and other justice system agencies, contributed to the high price paid for the great lockdown.
But if one were to compare the toll of the enormous crime rates of the pre-1995 period — the killings, maimings and property losses of crime victims; the negative impact on urban economies; the fear and dread, especially in big cities and in minority communities; to say nothing of the devastation of the cocaine generation — it is very unlikely that the cost of the reinvigorated system of justice would outweigh the terrible price of failing to act aggressively.
To summarize, the retirement from crime of the baby-boom generation was the main reason for the end of the post-1960s crime tsunami. The boomers had driven violent crime to record heights in their day, but by the 1980s, their day had passed.Their children, prey to the lure of cocaine, launched a short-term crime wave of their own. But in the face of this latest escalation, the retrenched criminal justice system responded aggressively instead of caving in as it had in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
The pressures of police harassment, arrests and high rates of imprisonment, combined with the consequences of the whole grim cocaine lifestyle, set off an anticrack craze — a positive contagion — and by the mid-1990s, the short-term spike was over. The great crime tidal wave was finally receding.
By Barry Latzer - The NY Post/Jan. 17, 2016
Photos: 1-DailyMail; 2-NY Post
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