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Can America Survive Its Corroded Culture?

Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal has a disturbing column this morning about America's prospects for the future.  Since the Syrian crisis and Obama's not-so "red line" appeared, the question has come front and center:  What, any longer, is America's role in the world?

You might be wondering what specifically that has to do with crime.  Stay tuned.

Ms. Noonan reports that, having listened to some wise and experienced people, the question is not whether America is any longer a great military power. We are.  The question is whether we are any longer a great nation.  Ms. Noonan continues:

The world knows a lot about us, and in ways removed from specific military actions. Their elites come here, and increasingly their middle class. They know our unemployment problem--it's not a secret. They take the train from New York to Washington and see the abandoned factories. They know about our budget problems, they know who holds our bonds. They read about the kids who are bored so they killed the visiting Australian baseball player, and the kids so bored they killed a World War II veteran. They read about the state legislator who became a hero because she tried to make sure babies can be aborted at nine months--they see the fawning interviews. They go home with the story of the guy who spent his time watching violent videos and then, amazingly, acted out his visions of violence at the Washington Navy Yard. They notice our mass killings are no more than two-day stories.

As you can see, in Ms. Noonan's view, which I share, crime plays a big role in the perception that America has lost its way.  We have problems, huge problems, we and others can see  --  gargantuan debt we can't pay but continue giddily to pile up, cites that are rotting back into the forest (Detroit is not the only one that comes to mind), education that has us falling further and further behind other developed countries (and some not so developed).  We see these problems, but do nothing.

Now you might be saying:  Hold on there, crime is one of the bright spots.  Hasn't crime plummeted in the last 20 years or so?  Aren't we safer now than we've been for decades?

The answer is yes.  But here's the catch:  Crime is a lagging indicator.  The more telling question is what's going on with crime now, what straws are in the wind, and what ideas about dealing with crime are gaining ground  --  ideas being sown now, and whose hoped-for but quite conspicuously vague outcroppings we will reap in the bye-and-bye.

Precisely because of crime's lag time, we don't know the answers yet, but what we see happening around us is ominous.  

Consider:  One of the important contributing factors to the drop-off in crime, although of course not the only one, has been the substantially increased use of imprisonment.  But the prison population has started to level off, and  --  guess what  --  the decrease in crime has started to level off with it.  (Kent has noted reports of increased crime in various of California's cities, an increase that exactly coincides with what is opaquely called "realignment").

Current thinking about crime grows in the Petri dish of an insidious complacency.  In a speech to the ABA about a month ago, the Attorney General denounced the criminal justice system as "ineffective," and  --  pointedly ignoring the well-being of the huge majority of ordinary citizens  --  concentrated instead on how well (or poorly, in his view) we're treating the tiny minority who wind up in prison because they want to make a fast buck dealing heroin, meth, cocaine, and other illegal and dangerous drugs.

What the Attorney General says is but a small part of the problem.  The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, together with an important voice in the Republican Party, Sen. Rand Paul, want to completely nullify federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes  --  and with them, the last vestige of determinate sentencing  --  by allowing judges limitless "discretion," free from any legislative boundary, to impose (or more correctly, and as they know) refuse to impose any significant sentence on criminals, no matter what the crime.

The campaign to dumb down sentencing, to reverse what is derisively (and falsely) called "incarceration nation," and  --  to be blunt  --  to return criminals en mass from prison to their pre-prison activities, suffuses legal academia.  One need only read Doug Berman's blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, and the numerous SSRN and law review articles he cites there, to understand that. (Of course one can always take the easy route, and teach at a law school, as I do).  The thinking about crime in those haunts is as utterly divorced from reality as you'd expect, given the elites who run the show.

If it weren't so serious, it would be hilarious to see our progressive, "forward looking" thinkers long for the yesteryear of bell bottom jeans, love beads, swooning faith in rehab, and, as they pretend not to know, runaway crime.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the push to return to the Sixties' and Seventies' disastrous means for dealing with crime takes root in more than just ignorance of the past. It takes root in more than complacency, too.  It takes root specifically in lying. Thus, when the Attorney General told us that our current criminal justice system is "ineffective" (his word), he was lying.  There's no other candid way to put it.

Here's the truth.  In the last generation, the crime rate is down by half.  The murder rate is down by more than half.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we have more than 4,000,000 fewer crimes per year now than we did 20 years ago. Crime is at levels not seen  since the Baby Boomers were in grade school.  At the same time, protections for criminal defendants have vastly increased, and are now more numerous and refined than at any time in the country's history.

The Attorney General's notion that this state of affairs shows an "ineffective" criminal justice system is absurd.  But it's a needed absurdity  --  needed as the predicate to help him and like-minded people bring corrosion to one part of our culture that, up to now, anyway, has mostly escaped it:  Our still at least partly disciplined system for dealing with crime.

Ms. Noonan's grim outlook on the erosion of standards noted this as well:

[I]t isn't only "the world" that sees this--Americans see it. And they are worried about their country. Deep down they, too, wonder if we are still a great nation or will be able to remain one. They think our economy is in a shambles and our government incapable, at the moment, of creating the conditions that will allow it to come back. They fear our culture is rotting our children's heads.

If we are to keep the country our parents gave us, the country that beat back Fascism and Communism and that provides freedom and opportunity like none other, we need to understand something:  Big accomplishments are not won at a small price. They are not won and they will not be kept by platitudes about "compassion."  They will not be kept by forgetting and, worse, condemning, the hard things we had to do to get where we are and to keep our citizens safe.

One of the things we have achieved to a remarkable extent is Franklin Roosevelt's freedom from fear.  Our cities are not entirely secure, but they're not the free-fire zones of the crack wars, either.  Neighborhood life in urban areas has had a spectacular renaissance. This didn't happen by magic.  It happened in large part because we resolved to take crooked and fearsome people off the street, put them in prison, and keep them there.  If we lose that resolve, we know what will happen.  We know because we've seen it before.

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