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The Million Crime March, or How to Get Back to the Shoot-em-Up Days


Want a million more serious crimes each year?  Two thousand more murders?  Five thousand more rapes?  Last week, the New York Times told us how to get them.

On Thursday, the Times published this editorial decrying mandatory minimum sentences and the dramatic increase in the prison population they have helped bring about.  Perhaps the key assertion in urging repeal of these laws was the claim that they "have helped fill prisons without increasing public safety."

That claim is false.  Because of what it is enlisted to help bring about, it is also astoundingly dangerous.

Twenty years ago in 1991, near the dawn of "incarceration nation," there were 14,872,900 serious, non-drug crimes in the United States. Last year there were 10,329,135 -- a crime decrease of about 4,543,760.  The numbers, taken from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, depict  --  contrary to the Times  --  a huge and unprecedented improvement in public safety.

Levitt and Spelman, in a Universtiy of Chicago analysis, concurred in by James Q. Wilson of UCLA, have found that "one-quarter or more" of the decrease in the number of crimes is because more people are being imprisoned and for longer.

One-quarter of 4,543,760 is 1,135,940.  In other words, we have a staggering 1,135,940 fewer serious, non-drug crimes per year now than 20 years ago because of mandatory minimums and other statutes increasing incarceration.

If we go back to the bad old days of yesteryear when we bought phony promises of rehabilitation and were less inclined toward imprisonment, this is what the numbers tell us we can expect each year:  More than 2,400 more murder victims, 5,400 more forcible rape victims, 78,000 aggravated assault victims, and hundreds of thousands more victims of robbery, burglary and auto theft.

The toll is staggering. 

The New York Times and the chorus of others who want to reverse the gains we have made through imprisonment should tell us, and loudly, how much of this blood curdling increase in crime victimization they are willing to accept. 


The Gray Lady's perverse thinking goes something like this:

Better to have 10 innocents victimized than have one criminal caught in the "trap" of a mandatory minimum sentence............

What irks me is that no one seems to get what caused the mandatory minimum response in the first place. The public got sick and tired of too many lenient judges letting violent criminals get easy sentences. How does one explain to a rape victim why her assailant, who had done this before, was walking the streets after a short sentence? How does one explain to a family why their child's killer was free after a long string of violent crimes?

Yes, mandatory minimums can result in harsh, even unfair, sentencing, and one can argue that these sorts of things give prosecutors too much discretion, too much power. The question is who should bear that risk, the public or those who put themselves in the position to be in the trap. I'd be more than willing to see a more robust clemency system, and maybe some of the rules could be tweaked a bit. But there should be no backsliding, and there is more work to be done when it comes to putting violent criminals behind bars. Violent crime is still far too high.

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