Throughout much of its history, the United States has been a comparatively violent nation. From the famed lawlessness of the western frontier, to the brawling biker gangs, to the iconic Italian Mafia and the fearsome Mexican drug cartels, the thirst for blood has left a mark on the American psyche – and profoundly influenced many of the country’s most cherished works of literary and cinematic art.
But sooner or later, a line gets drawn. And so, when a tidal wave of violent crime swept the nation in the late 80s, the legislators and the executive branch felt obliged to act. Many wanted to send a message to the criminal underworld by going after it with relentless and uncompromising zeal – kicking off the multi-decade War on Drugs and rolling out policies such as the three strikes law in California or stop-and-frisk in New York City. Others saw the root of all evil in the pervasive gun culture of the United States – successfully outlawing the possession or carry of certain classes of firearms and establishing a nation-wide system of background checks.
And then, in the midst of these policy changes, something very interesting started to unfold: the crime rate plunged like a rock, dropping almost 50% over the course of twenty years. But why? Well, the funny thing is, nobody could really tell. The proponents of tough policing and the War on Drugs tooted their own horns; but less vindictive municipalities that adopted programs of community engagement and proactive policing heralded broadly comparable results. Gun control advocates claimed that getting AR-15s and handguns off the streets made a difference; gun rights activists found little or no crime gap between the gun-friendly and the gun-hostile states. Economists pointed out that people were living better, happier, and longer lives. Epidemiologists called out the elimination of lead – an insidious developmental neurotoxin – from paints and gasoline. Some scholars have gone as far as claiming that easy access to contraception and abortion caused fewer children to be born into multi-generational poverty and to choose the life of crime.
Europe certainly provided an interesting contrast; the old continent, having emerged from two unspeakably devastating and self-inflicted wars, celebrated its newly-found pacifist streak. Its modern-day penal systems reflected the philosophy of reconciliation – abolishing the death penalty and placing greater faith in community relationships, alternative sentencing, and the rehabilitation of criminals. A person who served a sentence was seen as having paid the dues: in Poland and many other European countries, his or hers prospective employers would be barred from inquiring about the criminal record, and the right to privacy would keep the indictments and court records from public view.
It’s hard to say if the European model worked better when it comes to combating villainy; in the UK, crime trends followed the US trajectory; in Sweden, they did the opposite. But the utilitarian aspect of the correctional system aside, the US approach certainly carries a heavy humanitarian toll: the country maintains a truly astronomical prison population, disproportionately comprised of ethnic minorities and the poor; recidivism rates are high and overcrowding in some penitentiary systems borders on the inhumane.
Untangling this mess is not easy; most Americans seriously worry about crime and see it as a growing epidemic, even if their beliefs are not substantiated by government-published stats. Perhaps because of this, they favor tough policing; reports of potential prosecutorial oversight – such as the recent case of a tragic homicide in San Francisco – tend to provoke broader outrage than any comparable claims of overreach. Similarly, police brutality or prison rape are widely acknowledged and even joked about – but are seen as something that only ever happens to the bad folks.