Why Do We Lie About Crime?
I just wrote, “Why Do We Lie About Increasing Violence.” The article offered data from the FBI and Gallup documenting increases in violent crime and fear of crime in recent years. But newspapers and criminologists harshly insist that it’s not.
Responses in a variety of forums asked why we lie or mislead about a variety of criminal justice topics, thus this article.
At times, we seem to be incapable of a rational discussion on crime.
When I left law enforcement and went to college, I was schooled to think empirically about crime and to take a look at all sides of an issue. Multiple points of view were encouraged because there are few hard facts regarding crime or criminology.
I used the same philosophy with my students. When given an opinion, I consistently asked, “Based on what?” Opinions are fine if there is good evidence to back them up.
The problem is advocacy and cherry-picking data. Advocates constantly call for an evidence-based approach, but their “evidence” is often dubious at best.
Finally, are we transparent with the public? When it comes to community corrections, what we do and how we do it is largely hidden. This applies to other aspects of the justice system.
Do we tell the public that most sex offenders get probation? Why not? Do we address the fact that most offenders on community supervision have multiple infractions or new crimes? We don’t because we have to move people through the system to “manage” the population.
Root Causes of Crime
Crime is either based on poverty, the economy, discrimination or other sociological factors or it’s built on rampant and pervasive child abuse, resulting in massive mental health issues that affect most offenders.
In my mind, the correlation between child abuse and neglect and the offender population is almost overwhelming, but it’s hardly mentioned in media coverage or in the criminological community. Nothing will work until the child abuse/neglect issue is addressed.
Rehabilitation: Many (including this writer) advocate criminal rehabilitation programs, but some claim impossible reductions in recidivism. The governor of Virginia claimed a 50 percent reduction based on programs, which was preposterous.
Most rehabilitation programs don’t work or they made things worse or the reductions were less than ten percent. I support programs based on the need for better research and results. Sentencing reform will never dip into the violent population or those with repeat felony convictions (the great majority of the prison population), so programs are probably the only option we have.
Hate Crimes: I’m constantly told that hate crimes have increased wildly, but the Department of Justice states that the rate of hate crime victimizations did not change significantly from 2004 to 2015.
Policing: For decades the criminological community suggested that law enforcement tactics were almost meaningless as to controlling crime. But then we had Ferguson and Baltimore where cops were harshly accused with endless wrongdoings (and charged with murder). Investigations proved no wrongdoing, there were no convictions, but outraged cops throughout the nation decided to back off levels of aggressiveness, and violent crime increased in many cities.
College Rape: Articles continue to insist that college rapes are an epidemic on college campuses, and they far exceed rates off campus.
I received a journalist’s question regarding the rate of rapes on college campuses. The reporter wanted to know the rate of rapes or sexual assaults on college campuses compared to the general public.
I replied that the rate on campuses was lower than those off campus. “That’s impossible,” she said. I’ve read endless articles claiming that they’re higher. You are the first to tell me otherwise.”
But the rate of rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for nonstudents (7.6 per 1,000) than for students (6.1 per 1,000). I could never figure out why rape on campus was deemed more important than sexual assaults in the community.
Ban the Box: There are other topics. Many advocate, “Ban the box” shielding criminal histories of job applicants, but the data suggests that it doesn’t work.
Men Have Highest Rates for Violence: We’re told that men have higher rates of crime than women, but it’s just the opposite. Violent victimization rate for males dropped below females in 2015.
Elderly Have Lowest Rates: We’ve been told that the elderly have the lowest rates of crime but rates for property crime, fraud and burglary are all very high for older Americans.
Incarceration: We’re told over the course of decades that we rely too much on prison for those convicted of felonies.
About half (51%) of all defendants had five or more prior arrest charges, and more than a third (36%) had 10 or more. About 3 in 5 defendants had at least one prior conviction.
An estimated 43% of defendants had at least one prior felony conviction.
But only 42 percent of felony convictions result in a sentence to prison.
Victims Support Leniency: Every group advocating for less incarceration or other forms of leniency offer data stating the victims of crime do not want prison for their offenders. Considering that 53 percent of prison inmates are there for violent crimes, and most of the rest have multiple felony arrests or convictions, I believe these reports are disingenuous at best. I’ve worked with victims and their representatives for decades. Not one violent crime victim suggested leniency; victims want justice and accountability for violent and multi-repeat offenders.
Cops as Warriors: President Obama’s recent commission urged cops to be guardians, not warriors. But if an active shooter is in your elementary school, you want officers to have the training, tactics, and weapons (i.e., armored cars) to end the situation quickly. To do this, we have to train and equip them to be warriors. If the public demands protection from active shooters or terrorists, what choice do we have?
Writing about crime and criminal justice topics opens you up to a lot of criticism. There are people who feel very strongly about an endless number of criminological topics.
Either cops are violent thugs (expressed by many on Facebook) or the vast majority are decent people doing a difficult job. Many in law enforcement feel that they are recipients of unrelenting bias. Gallup says that they are one of the most trusted professions in America.
As with any topic, careful and polite deliberations won’t sell books or ingratiate you with advocates on either side. In most cases, we are obligated to understand the opinions of others.
But don’t hold your breath, we seem determined to embrace data or events that fit our political or philosophical views.
Maybe it’s time to discard politics and advocacy and embrace transparency and honesty. If the public we serve don’t like the results, they will let us know.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.
(Photo courtesy Eric Jackson)