The Crisis of Public Order

The Department of Justice now says that "stranger murders" have become four times as common as family killings, and that the chances of getting away with one exceed 80 percent. Scholars say the nation's murder rate may soon double. The author says we are inviting this "long descending night" of crime by teaching violent young people that "we will do almost anything not to have to act to defend ourselves, our country, or our character as people of decency and strength."
Toward a Race Behind Bars

In 1990 federal, state, and local governments combined spent about $8,921 per person. According to the Department of Justice, these governments spent $299 per person—about 3.3 percent of total public expenditures—on all civil- and criminal-justice activities, including $128 per person on domestic police protection. On national defense and international relations they spent $1,383 per person.

Spending on the Armed Forces has historically risen to meet perceived threats from hostile nations, or in case of rebellion. Sharply rising crime rates have not brought equivalent increases in police forces. From 1971 to 1990, as the rates of homicide and other violent crimes soared, per person expenditures (in constant dollars) on state and local police forces increased by only 12 percent. Spending did increase on prisons—by more than 150 percent. In 1992 state and federal prisons held 883,656 inmates (local jails held another 444,584). Out of every 100,000 residents of the United States, 344 were in prison (another 174 were in jail). Prison populations increased another seven percent in 1993, by which year 2.9 times as many people were incarcerated as had been in 1980.

The overwhelming majority of prison inmates are male. Of the 789,700 male inmates in 1992, 51 percent, or 401,700, were black, and nearly all the remaining 388,000 white. (Here Hispanics are included in both categories; according to the Department of Justice, 93 percent of Hispanic prisoners describe themselves as white and seven percent as black. Asians and Native Americans make up at most 2.5 percent of all prisoners.) Rates of imprisonment by race are therefore very different. In 1992, of every 100,000 white and Hispanic male residents, 372 were prisoners. Of every 100,000 black male residents, 2,678 were prisoners.

The heaviest rates of imprisonment affect men aged twenty to forty. Although the overall imprisonment rate for black men is 2,678 per 100,000, it reaches 7,210 for every 100,000 aged twenty-five to twenty nine, and 6,299 for those aged thirty to thirty-four. At any one time six to seven percent of black men at these critical ages are in state and federal prisons.

(Most arrests, and most new prison sentences, are not for violent crimes. In 1992 only 28.5 percent of offenders sentenced to state prisons had been convicted of violent offenses; 31.2 percent had been convicted of property offenses, and 30.5 percent of drug offenses. These numbers represent a major change in just over a decade: in 1980, 48.2 percent of newly sentenced offenders had been convicted of violent offenses, and only 6.8 percent of drug offenses. The Department of Justice has argued that many people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes have also committed violent offenses. But there can be no question that the police are making more drug arrests and relatively fewer arrests for violent crimes. For the past five years drug arrests have averaged one million a year, and arrests for all violent crimes combined about 600,000.)

A study was made of black men aged eighteen to thirty-four in the District of Columbia. On any given day in 1991, 15 percent of the men were in prison, 21 percent were on probation or parole, and six percent were being sought by the police or were on bond awaiting trial. The total thus involved with the criminal-justice system was 42 percent. The study estimated that 70 percent of black men in the District of Columbia would be arrested before the age of thirty-five, and that 85 percent would be arrested at some point in their lives. There have been no studies of the effects of such high imprisonment rates on the wider black society—for example, on the children of prisoners. No government or private agency has suggested any way to lighten the influence of paternal and sibling imprisonment on children, or how to balance the potential value of such an effort against the need to suppress violent crimes. Although the crime bill will substantially expand prison space, no one has asked how much further we can go—whether it is possible, practically, socially, or morally, to imprison some larger proportion of the black male population at any one time.

What's Already Spoken For

In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that a growing proportion of black children were being born to single mothers. When such large numbers of children were abandoned by their fathers and brought up by single mothers, he said, the result was sure to be wild violence and social chaos. He was excoriated as a racist and the subject was abandoned. The national rate of illegitimacy among blacks that year was 26 percent.

It took just over a decade for the black illegitimacy rate to reach 50 percent. And in 1990, twenty-five years after Moynihan's warning, two thirds of black children were born to single mothers, many of them teenagers. Only a third of black children lived with both parents even in the first three years of their lives. Seven percent of all black children and five percent of black children under the age of three were living with neither a father nor a mother in the house. The rate of illegitimacy more than doubled in one generation.

Social disorder—in its many varieties, and with the assistance of government policies—can perhaps be said to have caused the sudden collapse of family institutions and social bonds that had survived three centuries of slavery and oppression. It is at any rate certain that hundreds of thousands of the children so abandoned have become in their turn a major cause of instability. Most notably they have tended to commit crimes, especially violent crimes, out of all proportion to their numbers. Of all juveniles confined for violent offenses today, less than 30 percent grew up with both parents.

How many killers are there, and who are they? In 1990 a total of 24,932 homicides were reported. Of all killers identified by the nation's police forces and reported to the Department of Justice for that year, 43.7 percent were white and Hispanic and 54.7 percent were black. Whites made up 83.9 percent of the population that year, and blacks 12.3 percent. The rate of homicide committed by whites was thus 5.2 per 100,000, and by blacks 44.7 per 100,000—or about eight times as great. In the large counties analyzed by the Department of Justice, 62 percent of identified killers were black. This is equivalent to a black homicide rate of 50.7 per 100,000—close to ten times the rate among other citizens.

Serial killers and mass murderers, however, are overwhelmingly white.

Of the urban killers identified by the Department of Justice in 1988, 90 percent were male. Virtually none were aged fourteen or younger, but 16 percent were aged fifteen to nineteen, 24 percent were twenty to twenty four, and 20 percent were twenty-five to twenty-nine.

The white and black populations each suffered about 12,000 homicides in 1990. But the black population base is smaller, and the rate at which blacks fall victim is much higher. The victimization rate for white males was 9.0 per 100,000, and for white females 2.8 per 100,000. For black males it was an astonishing 69.2, and for black females it was 13.5. According to the Department of Justice, one out of every twenty-one black men can expect to be murdered. This is a death rate double that of American servicemen in the Second World War. Prospects for the future are apparent in the facts known about children already born. This is what Senator Moynihan means when he says the next thirty years are "already spoken for."

We first notice the children of the ghetto when they grow muscles—at about the age of fifteen. The children born in 1965 reached their fifteenth year in 1980, and 1980 and 1981 set new records for criminal violence in the United States, as teenage and young adult blacks ripped at the fabric of life in the black inner city. Nevertheless, of all the black children who reached physical maturity in those years, three quarters had been born to a married mother and father. Not until 1991 did we experience the arrival in their mid-teens of the first group of black youths fully half of whom had been born to single mothers—the cohort born in 1976. Criminal violence particularly associated with young men and boys reached new peaks of destruction in black communities in 1990 and 1991.

In the year 2000 the black youths born in 1985 will turn fifteen. Three fifths of them were born to single mothers, many of whom were drug addicted; one in fourteen will have been raised with neither parent at home; unprecedented numbers will have been subjected to beatings and other abuse; and most will have grown up amid the utter chaos pervading black city neighborhoods. It is supremely necessary to change the conditions that are producing such cohorts. But no matter what efforts we now undertake, we have already assured the creation of more very violent young men than any reasonable society can tolerate, and their numbers will grow inexorably for every one of the next twenty years.

In absolute numbers the teenage and young adult population aged fifteen to twenty-four stagnated or actually declined over the past decade. Crime has been rising because this smaller population has grown disproportionately more violent. Now it is about to get larger in size. James Fox, a dean at Northeastern University, in Boston, has shown that from 1965 to 1985 the national homicide rate tracked almost exactly the proportion of the population aged eighteen to twenty-four. Suddenly, in 1985, the two curves diverged sharply. The number of young adults as a proportion of the population declined; but the overall homicide rate went up, because among this smaller group the homicide rate increased by 65 percent in just eight years. Among those aged fourteen to seventeen, the next group of young adults, the homicide rate more than doubled. What we experienced from 1985 on was a conjunction of two terrible arrivals. One train carried the legacy of the 1970s, the children of the explosion of illegitimacy and paternal abandonment. Crack arrived on the same timetable, and unloaded at the same station.

Fox shows further that by the year 2005 the population aged fourteen to seventeen will have increased by a remarkable 23 percent. Professor John DeIulio, of Princeton University, predicts that the number of homicides may soon rise to 35,000 or 40,000 a year, with other violent offenses rising proportionally. Fox calls what we are about to witness an "epidemic" of teenage crime. He does not give a name to our present condition.

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