u_topn picture
flashome picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Crime and Punishment

November 5, 1996
March, 1982, cover President Bill Clinton stresses that his putting 100,000 more cops on the streets and increasing gun-control measures will greatly reduce criminal activity. His Republican challenger, Bob Dole, has argued that today's low crime rate results from a huge national imprisonment drive that originated in the 1970s and increased rapidly under Reagan and Bush in the 1980s. If in both cases these politically motivated arguments are more rhetorical than substantial, they do represent the tip of an iceberg of serious thought on crime -- much of which has appeared in the pages of The Atlantic over the years.

In the 1980s political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling teamed up for two famous and often-cited Atlantic articles on crime. In "Broken Windows" (March, 1982) -- an article that has now grown into a new book, Fixing Broken Windows (1996) -- the authors asserted that the best way to fight crime is to fight the disorder that precedes it:

We suggest that "untended" behavior leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.
Wilson and Kelling elaborated on a related theme in "Making Neighborhoods Safe" (February, 1989); they explored the idea of community-oriented policing that focuses on preventative measures as well as punitive response to incidents. They found this approach, which was being practiced increasingly throughout the country, to represent the most significant redefinition of police work in the past half century.

Another school of thought is much less optimistic and predicts a dramatic rise in juvenile crime as the juvenile population in the United States continues to expand. Adam Walinksy, in "The Crisis of Public Order" (July, 1995), offered an eye-opening assortment of U.S. crime statistics, many of which focused on juvenile crime, and then proposed adding at least half a million police officers to the public police force during the next five years to restore public order.

President Clinton has requested $261.4 billion for defense against foreign enemies who killed fewer than a hundred Americans in all of last year. It would be silly to suggest that the federal government should not or cannot spend an eighth as much -- two percent of even a shrunken federal budget -- to defend the nation against domestic enemies who killed more than 10,000 people who were strangers to them in 1994, and who will surely kill more in every year that lies ahead.
"Crime and Community" (May, 1994), the first installment of a two-part article by Atlantic contributing editor Wendy Kaminer, assessed the effectiveness of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill by looking at developments in community policing, the federalization of crime, and the future of gun control. Kaminer's findings were not heartening. "Federal Offense" (June, 1994), the second installment, considered the push for more prisons and more mandatory sentencing -- proposals that, she argued, are driven by political ideology rather than by evidence that they actually have much impact on crime.

In "A Model Prison" (November, 1995) Robert Worth described his visit to McKean, the federal correctional institution in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and reported that since 1989 an institutional emphasis on the humane treatment of prisoners has resulted in no escapes, no homicides, no reports of sexual assaults, no suicides, only three serious assaults on staff members, and only six recorded assaults on inmates.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

See the Flashbacks archive.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search