Thinking About Crime

Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice by Charles Silberman Random House, 540 pp.

CRIME IS the most visceral of issues: small wonder that the Right has almost exclusively coopted it. But hip-booted, lock-'em-up demagoguery has hardly stemmed a crime wave that keeps two out of every five citizens behind locked doors after dark. America, surfeited with crime, looks for a real solution. Charles Silberman's Criminal Violence, Crimal Justice strips away the cant, provides the hard facts, and finally makes it possible to think about, instead of react to, the problem of crime.

Violent crime has been fearfully persuasive throughout American history, and particularly in recent times. Between 1960 and 1976, the chance of being the victim of a major violent crime nearly tripled. Over three in every 100 Americans will be a victim this year. The elderly, with good reason, would rather go hungry than go out to the local Finast at night.

Crime is essentially, and perhaps necessarily, a youthful pursuit; more than three-quarters of those arrested in 1976 were under 25. Between 1960 and 1976, the 14-to-20-year-old, or potentially criminal, population grew remarkably, accounting for a good part of the criminal juggernaut. Moreover, the '60s saw a 39 per cent increase in the ratio of youth to adult criminals, the first such rise in over 70 years. The socialization of the young, the internalization of societal norms, burdened with this "demographic overload," partially collapsed, resulting in more crime.

As the young turn to crime, so do the poor. The turn to crime as the clearest opportunity for success, and the route taken by their role models; IBM doesn't recruit in the ghetto, but the numbers runners do. And the need for success, almost palpable in affluent American society, redoubled by television, cannot be underestimated; lack of material success means lack of identity, and the precarious sense of self of poor people causes them to seek the excitement of crime to confirm their existence.

But more than a function of youth or poverty, crime, and particularly violent crime, is perceived as a function of race. What most urban dwellers have intuited can be statistically shown--black people account for a disproportionate amount of violent street crime. Were it only a result of the crippling poverty that keeps 31 per cent of American blacks below the Federal subsistence level, crime statistics would correlate; yet, although in 1976 blacks accounted for 31 per cent of property crimes (such as burglary), they commited 60 per cent of the robberies, 40 per cent of the aggravated assaults, and about half of the murders and rapes. Were black crime merely due to discrimination by the police, the black crime rate would match the Hispanic; Silberman demonstrates how blacks account, proportionally, for far more violent crime than Puerto Ricans in New York or Chicanos in Texas, groups at least as poor and condemned as they.


By remaining willfully incognizant of the fact of black violence, liberals have practiced a subtle racism. Silberman accepts this phenomenon, and explains it. Violence has been the leitmotif of black history in this country; violence maintained slavery and the racial caste system that came after it. One would naturally expect that the reflex of violence has been, until recently, sublimated in fantasy and controlled by black authority figures in the heterogeneous black community. Now, with the opening of the society at large to blacks, those who remain in the black communities are uniformly poor and unsuccessful; moreover, the process of sublimation has broken down. Blacks are finally responding to violence with violence, as they might have all along.

But black violence, if understandable, is still wrong, particularly because the victims are generally black. As Silberman writes.

To excuse violence because black offenders are the victims of poverty and discrimination is racism of the most virulent sort; it is to continue to treat black people as if they were children incapable of making moral decisions.

Given the nature of criminality in America, what can be done to the criminal justice system to reduce crime? Not much, says Silberman. Custom and internal constraints keep crime down, not police, courts or prisons. Ultimately, we depend on our own willingness to obey the law. Yet certain reforms can play a small part.

SILBERMAN'S BOOK is most useful in debunking already proposed panaceas. Put more cops on the street, improve telecommunications, repeal the "exclusionary rule" developed by the Warren Court, stifle corruption, and you will reduce crime--so goes the litany on police reform. Silberman rejects these nostrums, demonstrates their inefficacy, and offers his own. The most crucial reform in policing, he says, is to change its very focus, from law-enforcement to public service. "The closer a police officer's relationship with the people on his beat," Silberman writes, "the greater his chances of reducing crime... improving police-community relationships... is what policing is all about."

Likewise with the holy writ on court reform. Contrary to public perception, most criminals end up getting caught; the courts, perhaps inexplicably, do a decent job of freeing the innocent and convicting and punishing the guilty. Such reforms as repeal of the exclusionary rule, prohibition of plea bargaining, mandatory prison terms, or standardized sentences are either harmful or irrelevant. What is needed is more attention to the appearance of justice--what Willard Hurst called "the substantive importance of procedure." The courts "will have to become models of fairness and due process--living demonstrations that justice is possible." The public--and the criminals--must believe that justice is being done if the law is to have any moral, normative content.

Court reform is perhaps most urgently needed in the juvenile court system--the education of criminals begins very early. Juvenile courts now either overreact or underreact; the first mars children for life with prison terms, the second gives them a sense that there are no consequences for antisocial acts. The juvenile courts need more of a choice than jail or a slap on the wrists: some means of instilling a notion of just dessert in young criminals without resorting to homeopathic incarceration.

Silberman goes on to puncture the rightist dogma of severe punishment and electrocution enthusiasm. Certainty of punishment, not severity, deters crime; overcrowded, bestially violent American prisons pile punishment on to no recognizable end, and the animals they create of men make prison government impossible. "The fatal flaw in the traditional approach to prison government," Silberman writes, "is that by expecting the worst, it succeeds in bringing out the worst." Prison government might proceed more efficiently and humanely, indeed more constitutionally, by treating inmates like citizens in a community.

In the long term, the answer to crime in America is elimination of racism and a period of sustained economic growth, although there is some question as to whether either of these, and particularly the latter, is possible. What can be done now is to change the way poor people, young people, and black people, see themselves, to make them masters of their own destiny instead of victims of fate. As Silberman writes. is possible to infuse poverty-stricken neighborhoods with a sense of community and purpose, and thus to develop the internal controls that help reduce (or prevent) crime.

A sense of dignity, which may transcend race, age and status, is our greatest weapon against crime.

Highly readable and hugely convincing, Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice may be the most important book on the topic published this year. Silberman has seized the issue from the troglodytes and returned it to the liberal metier, made it possible to think not only clearly but humanely' about crime. Buy it and read it, and tell your congressman to do the same. It's a lot cheaper than a German shepherd.