Your Crime Tax

ONE fine morning you may find in your mail a billet-doux from the state marked in bold red letters: —



The enclosed bill is for your share of this year’s cost of crime, including the following items: —

(1) The cost of maintaining all police activities

(2) The cost of operating the criminal courts

(3) The cost of supporting jails and reformatories

(4) The cost of indemnifying the victims of crime

The amount of this bill will stagger you. It will be your share of a national cost for crime that runs into billions of dollars per year. Estimates vary, for we have no comprehensive system of gathering criminal statistics throughout the nation. The Baumes Commission in 1928 put the annual crime cost (including many indirect losses) at $13,000,000,000. The Wickersham Commission three years later published figures covering many separate items, but declined to commit itself as to a total. It exceeded $15,000,000,000 in 1935, according to an experienced member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

From these and similar reckonings it would appear that our annual crime bill amounts to somewhere between $100 and $120 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. But it is not assessed against them in equal shares. Some pay nothing. Some pay a little. Some pay incalculably more. No one knows when or upon whom the callous hand of crime may fall. At any moment it may reach out without warning and extract from you, your family, or your friends an unforeseen toll in money, property, pain, or life. No one is immune.


The state, of course, is organized to protect you against just such hazards. It provides police, courts, prosecutors, jails, reformatories, and electric chairs, to curb, catch, prosecute, and punish criminals. In return the state demands your support and allegiance. It collects from you and others like you, through the devious processes of taxation, the cost of operating the machinery of justice, and may call upon you at any time to drop your personal affairs and attend court as a witness or juror.

But the state makes no provision for its failures. Crime may ruin or kill you in spite of all precautions, and in that case the state will concern itself only with catching and punishing the criminal. It accepts no further responsibility to you or to your family for the injury that has been done.

The state may even ruin or kill you itself, through the inept or lawless acts of its agents, without recognizing any liability to you. The hazards of crime unfortunately are not confined to the activities of criminals. In trying to get its man, the state sometimes gets the wrong man. Thousands of persons have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Edwin M. Borchard cites some astounding instances in his book, Convicting the Innocent. John A. Johnson was locked up for ten years, Ameer Ben Ali for eleven years, J. B. Brown for twelve years, David L. Stain for thirteen years, Henry Miller for fifteen years, and Andrew Toth for twenty years, all of them being innocent. When they were finally released, none of these men got a cent from the state which had wronged him.

Similarly, innocent persons have from time to time been wounded and killed by police and G-men who thought they were criminals. And minor casualties from lawless and careless police activities are so frequent that no one gets excited about them except the victims. A Chicago citizen recently complained that he was accosted by a flivver squad one night on his way home from the theatre and taken to the detective bureau, where he was

dogged around, having picture and fingerprints taken, made to sleep on the cold cement floor, not being allowed to communicate with anyone, fed nothing, go through Sunday show-up before hundreds of people, held until Tuesday morning, and then taken before a judge and charged with disorderly conduct. The judge, after hearing both sides, says: ‘Go home, young man, to your wife and children. I’m sorry you have been put to all this inconvenience.’

This morning I went down to my place of employment and was told. ‘I’m sorry, but we hired someone else in your place. We thought you had quit.’

This experience is typical. A man under arrest is customarily presumed to be guilty not only by the police but by prosecutors and judges. Prosecution is even used sometimes as a form of punishment where no conviction can be expected. An Illinois state’s attorney expressed this attitude: ‘If I can’t send them to jail, I ’ll send them to the poorhouse. I ’ll make them spend every cent they’ve got defending themselves.’

Occasionally a state legislature will pass an appropriation to indemnify a person who was wrongly convicted and jailed. Messrs. Molway and Berrett were each awarded $2500 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts last year as compensation for their false arrest, imprisonment, and tribulations in the Millen case. But this was a pure gratuity. As a rule it makes no difference whether you are injured by a criminal or by the state itself—the state will disclaim all liability. It says, in effect, to the victims of crime and the victims of its own maladroit attempts to enforce the law: ‘It was an act of God. God help you!’

To this general rule, however, there are a few exceptions. In a number of states, cities and counties are required by statute to pay compensation for damage resulting from mob violence. In some states such enactments cover only damage to property. In others the liability extends to personal injuries and death. Thus the conservative State of South Carolina imposes a penalty of not less than $2000 for a death by lynching, to be paid to the legal representative of the victim by the county where the lynching occurs.

The courts have generally upheld these laws. It is a proper function of government, according to the New York Court of Appeals, ‘to make good, at the public expense, the losses of those who may be . . . injured by acts of violence . . . which it is the duty of the government to prevent; and further . . . to make it to the interest of every person liable to contribute to the public expense to discourage lawlessness and violence. . . . These ends are plainly within the purposes of civil government, and, indeed, it is to attain them that governments are instituted.’

By an extension of the same principle, the state (or its subdivisions) should also be liable to the victims of the mistakes and misdeeds of the police, the courts, and the prosecutors. The laws of many European and South American countries so provide. But in the United States we cling to the ancient formula that the king can do no wrong. Only three states have yielded a little to more civilized notions. California, Wisconsin, and North Dakota have provided by statute that a person convicted of a felony, upon acquittal or pardon, may present his claim for compensation through certain prescribed channels.

Interestingly enough, the doctrine of state responsibility has been approved, in part at least, by such an ardent advocate of government economy as the Chicago Tribune. In commenting on an appropriation by the House of Representatives of $5000 to compensate the widow of a man who was killed by federal prohibition agents, the Tribune proposed that Congress ‘should enact a general law to establish a procedure by which all victims of lawless enforcement may procure such compensation as money can provide. This would be good public policy for more reasons than that of official restraint, which would be little if any. It would also be an act of common justice.’

The dry era has passed, but the principles of justice remain the same. If the state should indemnify the victims of its malfeasance, it should also indemnify the victims of its misfeasance and nonfeasance. In other words, it should accept the full burden of its delinquencies and compensate every person who is injured, without fault on his part, either by the state’s failure to prevent crime or by the state in its efforts to catch and punish criminals.

Such an undertaking would require a tremendous expenditure, but it would not appreciably increase the actual cost of crime. After all, someone has always paid the bill. It has been apportioned, however, without rhyme, reason, or equity. The greater part of the load now falls on the unlucky individual victims of crime. If the state should institute a programme of crime insurance, the burden would be shifted to all taxpayers in just proportion.

The taxpayers already carry the cost of maintaining the police, the courts, and the jails as part of the general expense of government. But no one knows just how much they actually pay for that purpose. If we were each presented with a separate bill for our respective share of this expense, it would strike so poignantly at our pocketbooks that we should acquire a sudden and keen interest in the control and prevention of crime. There would be such a hurrying and scurrying in support of law enforcement, such zeal in reporting lawlessness, such coöperation with the police in catching culprits, and such aid and comfort to courts and prosecutors, as were never before seen in these United States.

The effect would be even more galvanic if the cost of administering the criminal law and the cost of compensating the victims of crime and the victims of the law’s blunders were combined in one great levy and assessed in fair proportion against every corporation and individual, with a minimum to be paid in money or labor by every healthy adult.

The state would thus announce: ‘This is what crime costs, ladies and gentlemen! Here is your Crime Tax! Step right up and pay your share!’