Cato Policy Analysis No. 218 November 14, 1994

Policy Analysis

Crime, Police, and Root Causes

by William A. Niskanen

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute and editor of Regulation magazine.


Executive Summary

This paper presents a statistical analysis of the relations between crime rates and the level of public safety resources, controlling for the major conditions that affect each variable. Major findings include the following.

* Crime in the United States is much higher than that reported to police but has probably not increased over the past 20 years.

* An increase in police appears to have no significant effect on the actual rate of violent crime and a roughly proportionate negative effect on the actual rate of property crime.

* An increase in corrections employees appears to have no significant effect on the violent crime rate and a small positive effect on the property crime rate.

* Crime rates are strongly affected by economic conditions. For example, an increase in per capita income appears to reduce both violent and property crime rates by a roughly proportionate amount.

* Crime rates are also affected by demographic and cultural conditions. For example, the violent crime rate increases with the share of births to single mothers.

* The demand for police and corrections employees is a negative function of the average salary of public employees, a positive function of per capita income and federal aid, and a positive function of the crime rates.

The major policy implication of this study is that, because we have so little knowledge of how to reduce crime, we should decentralize decisions on crime prevention and control, beginning with repeal of the 1994 federal crime law.

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.

--Mark Twain

Congress, in a frenzy of competitive machoism and with little regard for the Constitution or common sense, recently passed another election-year crime bill. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 substantially federalized criminal law, increased sentences for a wide range of crimes, banned some semiautomatic rifles, and authorized about $30 billion in additional spending for police, prisons, and a range of exotic social programs. A major premise of the act, for which there is surprisingly little evidence, is that more police and prisons would reduce crime. A minor premise, for which there is even less evidence, is that federal grants for everything from sensitivity training to midnight basketball would also reduce crime!

The act is an outrage. Let me count the ways:

1. Some of its provisions are inconsistent with the Constitution and the historical limits on the powers of the federal government. A major recent federal publication summarizes the constitutional perspective:

The U.S. Constitution reserves general police powers to the States. By act of Congress, Federal offenses include only offenses against the U.S. Government and against or by its employees while engaged in their official duties, and offenses which involve the crossing of State lines or an interference with interstate commerce.(1)

This act, however, establishes federal penalties for most murders and for a wide range of other crimes already subject to state law. Moreover, the act substantially reduces the discretion of state judicial officers by making the new grants for prisons conditional on a state law that violent criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence and by establishing a mandatory life sentence for those convicted of three serious violent crimes or drug offenses. The premise on which Congress asserted those powers is that crime is a nationwide problem and that guns, drugs, and criminals move across state lines. On that premise, no area of American life is immune to a similar assertion of federal powers.

2. Some provisions are an abuse of civil liberties. In cases involving sexual assault or child molestation, the rules of evidence are changed to permit evidence on the defendant's prior behavior. Juveniles convicted of violent crimes or serious drug offenses are to be subject to an additional sentence of up to 10 years if they are also members of street gangs. Aliens convicted of an "aggravated felony" are to be denied a deportation hearing.

3. Some provisions are counterproductive. A federal death penalty is established for four crimes not involving murder (that may be unconstitutional). A third conviction for a serious offense not involving murder is punishable by life imprisonment, a longer sentence than for most murders. Such increases in the penalties for less heinous crimes reduce the incremental penalty for more heinous crimes.

4. The ban of 19 types of semiautomatic rifles is purely symbolic (and may also be unconstitutional). The banned rifles are not functionally different from hundreds of still-legal rifles, the aggregate of which is used in about 1 percent of crimes involving a gun. No one contends that this ban will reduce the crime rate. The ban is hotly contended, primarily because its supporters hope and its critics fear that it will serve as precedent for a broader ban of semiautomatic rifles.

5. Most of the social programs financed by the act (about one-third of the total funding) are likely to be worth less than their cost. Few, if any, of those programs would be approved if subject to a stand-alone vote, and most of the funds are to be spent for activities with only a token relation to crime prevention. Larry Sherman, president of the Crime Control Institute, describes the programs as "untested drugs. Nobody has evaluated any of these ideas to see whether they are safe and effective."(2) Advocates of these programs should explain why an explosion of similar programs since 1960 has not reduced the crime rate.

6. And finally, the 1994 act is unnecessary. Crime is a nationwide problem but does not require a national solution. More police in California, for example, do not reduce the crime rate in New York. More likely, to the extent that criminals are mobile, state and local governments may have too strong an incentive to spend on public safety activities, reducing the local crime rate at the expense of increasing the crime rate in other jurisdictions. Moreover, the large high-crime states such as California, New York, Illinois, and Florida will receive a smaller share of the $9 billion in earmarked funds than their proportionate share of federal taxes.(3)

The report of the conference committee concludes that "individual states and localities find it impossible to handle the problem by themselves" and that "the Congress finds that it is necessary and proper to assist the States in controlling crime."(4) Crime is a serious problem in much of the United States. The federal government, however, lacks the constitutional authority, the incentive, and the information to address the problem of local crime and has no more resources than are available to the states. Moreover, to the extent that the best combination of measures to reduce crime is unknown or differs among jurisdictions, it is especially important to decentralize decisions on the crime problem. For those reasons, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 is wrong on all counts.

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