Getting Smart About Fighting Crime

What would Massachusetts need to do to wage a war against crime that was less symbolic and more practical, less scattershot and more systematic, less simplistic and more serious–not just tough, in other words, but tough-minded?

The short answer is, we would have to do a lot of things differently, according to Putting Crime Control First, a research report commissioned by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth. The report was produced by BOTEC Analysis Corporation, a Cambridge-based company founded by Mark A.R. Kleiman, a criminal justice scholar and author of Against Excess, an acclaimed book about the war against drugs. Kleiman is the lead author of the report, and was assisted by several other BOTEC researchers and writers.

The report notes that a recent Gallup poll found Americans view crime as the most important problem facing the country. Looking at what has happened in crime over the last 35 years, it’s no wonder. Nationally, the overall crime rate has increased by 180 percent since 1960. And violent crime has been going up faster–up by 327 percent during the same period–than property crime. The homicide rate among youths between the ages of 14 and 17 went up 208 percent from 1984 to 1994, according to James Fox of Northeastern University.

Massachusetts has seen the same trends as the rest of the country, including an exploding crime problem among juveniles. In 1994, there were 268,281 crimes reported to police, including 42,749 violent offenses. Figures on how many of those crimes involved juveniles are hard to come by, but the Massachusetts Department of Public Health tracked 3,400 gun and knife wounds treated in emergency rooms in 1994, and more than 1,000 of those involved teen-agers or young adults.

Most criminologists believe crime statistics, in fact, understate the amount of crime, due to the large number of crimes that goes unreported.

Though Putting Crime Control First notes several positive developments in recent years in crime-fighting, the report faults state leaders and policy-makers for failing to make systematic efforts to reduce and control crime.

The three keys to crime control, according to the authors, are managing the population of hard-core criminals, reducing the future ranks of serious criminals, and strengthening community participation in efforts to make neighborhoods more crime-resistant. Central to these goals is coordination among the many state agencies that have roles in law enforcement and social service.

How is Massachusetts doing? Dramatic improvement has been seen in coordinating agencies and in working with the community (the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative is one example). But in managing the “criminogenic population”–in controlling the behavior of serious, frequent lawbreakers–the Massachusetts “war on crime” is disorganized, fragmented, and not especially successful.

In the public mind, the goal of managing the criminal hard-core may be as simple as expanding prison capacity and lengthening punishment. And, in fact, Massachusetts most likely will need additional prison capacity in the next decade, according to the report. “Massachusetts imprisons only 388 out of 100,000 adults, compared to a national average of 715 out of 100,000 adults,” the authors note. “This lower rate of imprisonment is at least partly accounted for by our lower rate of violent crime; Massachusetts, for example, has about half the national homicide rate. But the Massachusetts ratio of prisoners to serious crimes remains low enough that there exists a strong case for raising it by adding cells,” the authors maintain.

Since state law requires mandatory life sentences without parole for first-degree murderers, there will always be criminals dealt with strictly by incarceration. Yet, more than 90 percent of those in prison will eventually be back out in the community. Thus, the primary challenge facing the state is controlling the behavior of former prisoners, parolees, and those on probation.

This is where the state has seen the fewest signs of progress. In several areas, opportunities to reduce crime “are systematically neglected.” Among the many examples cited in the report, here are a few:

-The corrections system is fragmented. Where most states have centralized, unified systems including prison, probation, and parole, Massachusetts does not. The prison system is split off from the Parole Board, and from the probation system, which is run by the courts.

-Though spending on the prison system has increased, there has not been equivalent attention spent on improving the probation system, which may be where the most cost-effective solutions are.

-Not enough attention is being spent on getting frequent offenders off drugs. Probation and parole systems should have a coordinated approach to drug-testing and drug treatment in order to move toward a “coerced abstinence” policy.

-Though prison education programs offer hope in reducing recidivism, the state has cut back on education. “There is a strong case to be made for prisons having excellent libraries and inadequate weightlifting equipment rather than the other way around,” according to the report.

-The court system moves too slowly. In most cases, it is more important to increase swiftness, not necessarily severity, of sentence.

-The courts’ sentencing system needs overhaul. There is too much disparity and randomness in sentencing. A state commission on sentencing recommended new guidelines last year but the legislature has not acted on them.

-Police forces are hobbled by out-of-date information technology. Any UPS or Federal Express truck has better communications technology than the average police cruiser.

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Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
A key concept throughout the study is that Massachusetts needs to find better ways of controlling the behavior of the criminally-inclined when they are outside the prison walls. “The transition from the life of a prisoner to the life of a free citizen needs to be carefully managed, ideally through a process of lower and lower levels of security within prison, then furloughs or work release, then a halfway house, then close monitoring on parole, then decreasing levels of monitoring as the offender demonstrates the ability to stay out of trouble.”

Though “rehabilitation” is out of favor with the public, part of any successful program would include finding ways of coercing better behavior on the part of those who inevitably will return to the community. A better system of “community corrections” is where Massachusetts has “the single greatest opportunity to control crime at relatively low cost.”