Barry Latzer is that rare academic with both practical and theoretical knowledge of his subject matter. He prosecuted and defended accused criminals while teaching at the City University of New York graduate center and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His new book, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, makes use of more than a century of crime statistics to sum up the wisdom of a long career studying why crime waves rise and fall. It’s a book that does not shy from the controversial, as you’ll see from our conversation.
David Frum: Your book ends with the ominous possibility that the great crime reduction since the early 1990s is not a permanent transition, but just a temporary trough in a recurring cycle of crime spikes and crime drop-offs. Could you briefly explain the basis of this worrying claim?
Barry Latzer: The optimistic view is that the late ‘60s crime tsunami, which ended in the mid-1990s, was sui generis, and we are now in a period of "permanent peace," with low crime for the foreseeable future. Pessimists rely on the late Eric Monkkonen's cyclical theory of crime, which suggests that the successive weakening and strengthening of social controls on violence lead to a crime roller coaster. The current zeitgeist favors a weakening of social controls, including reductions in incarcerative sentences and restrictions on police, on the grounds that the criminal-justice system is too racist, unfair, and expensive. If Monkkonen were correct, we will get a crime rise before long. Optimists point to the absence of factors that brought on the 60s crime boom: no immigration or migration of high-crime populations, no demographic upsurge in the youth population. They might also add: continued movement of minorities to the middle class, and no drug epidemics (like crack cocaine) among poor populations, which generate spikes in violent crime. (The current heroin/opioid crisis is unlikely to produce significant violent crime so long as the drugs are cheap and the users relatively affluent. Drug and alcohol prohibitions produce violence in two ways: where distribution gangs compete for territory and kill one another, and where poor populations are unable to support their addictions, leading to robbery and other crimes to raise money.)