Takeaway | Spring 2015 Issue

Crime and Safety: A Better Approach

What should we learn from the latest research on crime and public safety? That good policing makes communities safer, and that smart approaches to incarceration save money and lives.

By Jim Newton

The lessons of the research featured in these pages are fairly unambiguous, even if they buck against a reflexive period in California and American history, one that will look even more unfortunate in retrospect: the long years when this country attempted to fight crime merely by rounding up criminals and shoveling them into prisons for as long as possible.

That approach, egged on in California by special-interest politics, gave this state the nation’s highest number of men and women behind bars. In 1980, 23,000 Californians were in prison; 10 years later, the number had grown to 94,000; and 10 years after that, it reached more than 160,000. The effect on crime was hard to discern: Crime rose in the 1980s while incarceration skyrocketed; crime fell in the 1990s as it continued to increase. Meanwhile, aggressive policing — neighborhood sweeps, battering rams to take down drug houses, racial profiling — left communities edgy and victimized, by both criminals and police. Los Angeles had its riots in 1992, after which policing began to change, and crime began its long descent.

The desire to “get tough on crime” is visceral and politically appealing. As Michael Stoll notes in this magazine, most candidates cannot afford to be “soft” on crime. The trouble, however, is that getting tough doesn’t make things better — and in some cases, it makes things much worse. Juveniles separated from community and family are more likely to end up as adult criminals; fully three out of four adults who go to prison commit another offense within three years and are inside again.

There are alternatives. Adeline Nyamathi’s study of former inmates on supervised release suggests that access to health care, counseling and services may lower the re-offense rates for adults – a finding that argues against any notion that these former prisoners are beyond help or redemption. Laura Abrams’ pioneering studies of children suggest a similar blend may head off their criminal futures.

This work arrives at a propitious moment, for there’s reason to think Californians are ready to reconsider this state’s approach to crime. Community policing strategies, especially in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, have helped produce stunning achievements in safety over the past decade. Voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a measure to roll back California’s Three Strikes law (the rollback carried in every county), and two years later approved Proposition 47, which downgraded a number of felonies to misdemeanors. The public already is showing more flexibility; it’s time for leaders to follow.

Policymakers are understandably skittish about being seen as coddling criminals, but if the cost of sounding tough is a society that is less safe and more racially divided, then it seems a high and foolish price to pay. The work featured in this issue of Blueprint suggests a different course — smarter, kinder, more cost-effective and, in the end, safer.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books of biography and history, and he teaches at UCLA.

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