Body Count: Moral Poverty . . . and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs
by William J. Bennett, John J. Dilulio, Jr., and John P. Walters
Simon ë Schuster. Ill pp. $24.00
Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities
by George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles
Free Press. Î19 pp. $25.00
As his seventeenth birthday approached early this year, Michael LaSane of Berkeley Township, New Jersey, decided to give himself a present: a new Toyota Camry. Finding just the one he wanted in the parking lot of a neighborhood shopping center, he forced its owner—a forty-five-year-old teacher, wife, and mother by the name of Kathleen Weinstein—to drive with him to a nearby wooded area. On a tape-recording that Weinstein managed clandestinely to make of her abduction, she can be heard pleading for her release and trying to persuade the teenager that it was not too late to reconsider. LaSane, unmoved, can also be heard, querying Weinstein about the car’s service record and lease arrangements. Minutes later, he tied her up and smothered her to death.
Such tales of cold, unprovoked brutality are common fare in news reports these days, especially in our major urban areas, and go a long way toward explaining why violent crime continues to weigh so heavily on the American mind. Unfortunately, the problem is every bit as pervasive as the sensational and widely reported misdeeds suggest. Since the mid-1980’s, and notwithstanding the recent and much-ballyhooed dip in crime nationwide, young men between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four have committed murder and mayhem at an ever increasing rate, accounting for a wildly disproportionate share of the violence in our streets. What is more, this age group will expand in both relative and absolute size in the years ahead; many more Michael LaSanes appear to be on the way.
Both Body Count and Fixing Broken Windows aim to avert this fearsome possibility by recasting the terms of public debate. Though the books differ in scope—the first provides an overview of recent national efforts against crime, while the latter focuses more narrowly on policing strategies—their authors agree on one essential matter: crime is a cultural and moral problem with cultural and moral solutions. Recognizing this, they insist, is the necessary prelude to any serious discussion of anti-crime policy—about which they have many useful, and sometimes provocative, things to say.
The three authors of Body Count bring impressive credentials to their task. Among his other accomplishments in public life, William J. Bennett headed the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George Bush. He was assisted there by John P. Walters, who is now executive director of the Council on Crime in America. John J. Dilulio, Jr., who has written widely on crime-related issues, teaches at Princeton and heads the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Management.
Body Count paints a sobering picture of where things stand now. Although the murder rate dropped this year to 8 per 100,000 citizens, this is still at the top end of the scale historically: in the mid-1960’s, the rate hovered around 5 per 100,000 and then began a rapid ascent, standing at 9.5 in 1993. Those responsible for the violence are not only younger than their counterparts of an earlier era, they are also considerably more energetic and vicious: according to Bennett, Dilulio, and Walters, today’s “baddest boys” may be responsible for three times as much “serious harm and gratuitous violence” as those of yesteryear. In Florida alone, where the juvenile proportion of the population declined from 31 to 23 percent over the past two-and-a-half decades, the percentage of juveniles among those arrested for robbery increased from 19 to 32.5, for rape from 10 to 16.2, and for murder from 5.3 to 16.2.
DiIulio has elsewhere dubbed this new breed of young offenders “super-predators.” The animal imagery is apt, but only up to a point. Impulsive and remorseless, fearing neither “the stigma of arrest, the pains of imprisonment, [nor] the pangs of conscience,” these young criminals do indeed seem at times like a species apart. Yet, as the authors of Body Count recognize, they are also the product of distinctively human failings. What unites the super-predators is not merely that they come overwhelmingly from poor and minority neighborhoods, but that so many of these neighborhoods have seen the nearly complete disintegration of the institutions that make for decent character. Often abused or neglected, increasingly born out of wedlock, these young people have grown up without the guidance of “loving, caring, responsible adults” willing to teach them the difference between right and wrong. In short, they suffer from a condition the authors fittingly define as “moral poverty.”
In contending with such depraved youngsters, society’s first order of business, according to Bennett, Dilulio, and Walters, must be self-defense, and here they document the ongoing failure of our criminal-justice system to keep even the worst offenders off the streets. Those convicted of a violent felony serve, on average, less than half their sentences, and almost two thirds of such malefactors are on the streets at any given time, either on probation or on parole. Body Count’s solution to such “revolving-door” justice is straightforward: longer effective sentences, stricter supervision of offenders released back into the community, and (most importantly) raising the revenues to pay for these needed reforms.
This is not, however, just a rehash of familiar “get-tough” policies. Rather, the aim of the authors—who reject such conservative staples as reinstituting chain gangs and stripping prisons of all amenities—is moral accountability. Stern, reliable punishment sends a “socializing, civilizing message,” they write, while its absence represents yet another instance of adults abdicating their responsibility for guiding the wayward young.
Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters would also like to see a wider campaign waged against crime, and it is one that will not sit well with civil libertarians and others on the Left. They are especially keen on reviving the vigorous—and, they show, remarkably successful—anti-drug strategy of the 1980’s, with a renewed emphasis on interdiction and on stigmatizing illegal drug use among teens (who have returned to drugs in alarming numbers of late). They have little but scorn for those who consider drug use a personal or health matter, best regulated without criminal sanction, rather than a profound question of character that touches us all.
Perhaps surprisingly, the authors of Body Count are concerned not only about the corrupting influence of drugs in inner-city neighborhoods but about alcohol as well. They recommend the use of zoning laws to break up high concentrations of liquor stores and bars, and strict limits on alcohol advertising. “Where broken bottles fill the gutters,” they write, “social bonds are weakened and social capital goes down the drain.” If consistency is one test of moral seriousness, Bennett, Dilulio, and Walters pass with flying colors.
George L. Kelling writes with similar seriousness about the steps that a community may legitimately take against the deviance of some of its members. The “dean of America’s policing scholars,” as the authors of Body Count call him, Kelling collaborated with James Q. Wilson in 1982 on “Broken Windows,” an influential article that laid out the then-little-noted relationship between public disorder—like vandalism—and serious crime. Now, in Fixing Broken Windows, written together with the lawyer and anthropologist Catherine M. Coles, he describes recent efforts to reestablish norms of civility and law-abidingness in our most troubled urban areas.
Two key insights inform the sort of preventive, community policing that Kelling and Coles advocate. First, citizens are less troubled day to day by the prospect of serious crime than by such highly visible minor threats as aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness, low-level drug dealing, and noisy commotions. Second, such seemingly petty offenses are directly related to more serious ones: those who commit them are often violent felons themselves, and when their lesser infractions are ignored, it suggests a general lack of concern on the part of the community and thus invites major infractions.
The most celebrated testing ground of these ideas has been New York City. Efforts to curb public disorder began there in the mid-1980’s but did not come to a head until the appointment in 1990 of William J. Bratton (with whom Kelling has been closely associated) to lead the Metropolitan Transit Authority police. Using newly won legal authority to ban panhandling in the subways, and focusing on ejecting disorderly riders and apprehending fare-beaters—a large number of whom, it turned out, were carrying illegal weapons or had outstanding felony warrants—Bratton brought the felony rate down by 75 percent, a decline Kelling and Coles report as “unparalleled in the crime-control literature.”
The effectiveness of these strategies was demonstrated again when Bratton took over the New York police department in early 1994. Zeroing in on “quality-of-life” crimes—the unsolicited “squeegeeing” of car windshields, petty drug trafficking, public drinking and urination—and giving new authority to precinct commanders, he produced immediate results. By the end of 1995, New Yorkers were less likely to be robbed or murdered than at any time since the early 1970’s.
Predictably, civil libertarians have been the strongest opponents of the kind of measures employed by Bratton. Among the early setbacks for New York’s Transit Authority was a ruling by the federal district court—eventually overturned—that protected begging in the subways as a form of free speech. Yet Kelling and Coles bring encouraging news: cities like San Francisco and Seattle have been able to prevail against such court challenges by crafting their laws narrowly and enforcing them with care.
A much more unexpected source of resistance to community policing has been police departments themselves. For decades, as Kelling and Coles relate in detail, American police have increasingly operated under a model that emphasizes responding to crime rather than preventing it. This has led to the rise of so-called “911” policing and the redeployment of patrolmen from neighborhood beats to radio-dispatched cars.
These practices were meant to make police more “professional” and less prone to corruption and bribery, but they have also tended to keep officers at a distance from the wider criminal population and, worse, to make them strangers in the eyes of the public at large. Now police in many localities are once again being stationed in the community, where they can get to know the law-abiding majority and help them to establish and maintain strong standards of public behavior.
The Authors of Body Count and Fixing Broken Windows know, of course, that changing our laws and adopting new police strategies can only do so much to restrain the worst among us. Lasting progress against the new class of ferocious street criminal will come primarily from the work done in our families and churches, schools and neighborhood associations. Still, public policy can set the tone. It can help to create, in the words of Bennett, Dilulio, and Walters,
a climate that would make it easier rather than harder for all of us to grow more civilized; easier rather than harder for us to keep our commitments to one another; easier rather than harder for us to recapture the idea of personal and civic responsibility.
For those who invariably place the rights of individuals above the claims of the community, such talk might seem an open invitation to intolerance and vigilantism. But anyone who truly cares about civil liberties would draw just the opposite conclusion. For unless we manage on our own to set the limits of acceptable public behavior, using the gentle power of opinion and mores, we will only bring closer the day when we feel compelled to ask government to take up its far harsher tools and do the job for us.