CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN AMERICA

By Elliott Currie 

Holt/Metropolitan 208 pp. $22.50 

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Reviewed by H. Bruce Franklin

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This is a very unfashionable book. Elliott Currie does not believe that we need to build more and more prisons, impose longer sentences, make prisons as harsh as possible, eliminate educational opportunities for prisoners, reinstitute chain gangs, treat juvenile offenders as adults, and divert still more funds from social services to penal institutions. He clings to the old-fashioned notion that we should concentrate more on the prevention of crime. He even goes so far as to accept the hopelessly outdated idea that widespread poverty is the main cause of violent crime. If all this were not antiquated enough, Currie also evidently assumes that rational argument based on scientific knowledge--i.e., reason and facts--can change social policy. Even his prose style is anachronistic: earnest, free of jargon, lucid.

When Currie, who has taught sociology and criminology at Yale and Berkeley, advanced similar arguments in his 1985 volume Confronting Crime, the New York Times book reviewer noted that the "biggest incarceration binge in American history" had increased the nation's prison population from fewer than 200,000 in 1970 to 454,000 by 1984. Currie's warnings against continuing the binge were of course disregarded. And so what may have seemed an astonishing number of inmates back in 1984 is dwarfed by the current prison population of 1.2 million, plus an additional half a million people in local jails. The United States now has by far the largest prison system on the planet. There are more prisoners in California alone than in any other country in the world except China and Russia. The present U.S. rate of incarceration is six times the global average, seven times the average of Europe, fourteen times the rate of Japan, twenty-three times the rate of India. European rates of incarceration are consistently well below 100 per 100,000 population; the rate of incarceration of African-American males is close to 4,000 per 100,000. As Currie puts it in the present volume, "mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time," and we have thus been conducting a gigantic social "experiment," "testing the degree to which a modern industrial society can maintain public order through the threat of punishment." 

Has this experiment worked? Media attention has recently highlighted the falling rate of crime for the past four years. As Currie demonstrates, this decline has come during a period of unusually low unemployment and relative prosperity, actually bolstering his thesis that extreme poverty is the main cause of crime. Moreover, he notes that the crime rate has been falling only in relation to the extremely high levels of 1990-1993, two decades into the mass incarceration program. If we compare 1996with 1984, the year cited in the review of Currie's earlier volume, we discover that the crime rate (according to the FBI's annual Crime Index) has actually risen 13 percent.

The costs of this social experiment are immense. As Currie points out, the money spent on prisons has been "taken from the parts of the public sector that educate, train, socialize, treat, nurture, and house the population--particularly the children of the poor." Currie if anything understates the consequences elsewhere in the public sector. For example, California now spends more on prisons than on higher education.

Crime and Punishment in America cogently debunks what Currie labels the "myths" that rationalize and legitimize the prison craze. The "myth of leniency" (the dominant notion that criminals are being let off too easily or let out too soon) is shown to be based on phony statistics, "unless we believe that . . . everyone convicted of an offense--no matter how minor--should be sent to jail or prison, and that all of those sent to prison should stay there for the rest of their lives." The "myth" that "prison works" ignores the soaring crime rates during most of the quarter-century incarceration experiment; it also assumes that the only alternative available to us has been doing nothing at all about crime. 

This leads to the parts of the book dearest to the author's heart: alternatives to mass incarceration. With thorough documentation from recent research, Currie describes a number of social programs that indeed have dramatically reduced rates of crime or recidivism, even among groups of people generallyconsidered beyond hope. Examples he gives range from prenatal and preschool home visitation targeting child abuse through enriched schools for high-risk teenagers to successful community programs for youths who already have multiple arrests. The modest costs of these programs, together with their tangible benefits, offer a stark contrast to the enormously expensive mass incarceration model, with all its attendant social devastation. Defying the present political climate, Currie goes on to advocate fundamental social changes modeled on European, particularly Scandinavian, social welfare systems.

This is a book that ought to be read by anyone concerned about crime and punishment in America, especially our political leaders and representatives. However, it is here that Currie's belief in the power of reason and facts to change social policy may seem naive. Are America's legislators unaware of the social consequences of their penal legislation? Perhaps they may have even noted something that Currie doesn't: felony convictions have now disenfranchised four and a half million Americans, overwhelmingly from the most impoverished sections of society, the very ones targeted by the incarceration "experiment." From the perspective of those with political and economic power, maybe prison does work. 

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H. Bruce Franklin is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University--Newark and the author or editor of eighteen books on culture and history. His Prison Writing in 20th-Century America  (Penguin Books, Foreword by Tom Wicker) is available from  amazon.com .  See also his  Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist .

E-mail to H. Bruce Franklin:  hbf@andromeda.rutgers.edu