June 10, 2014

Crime and punishment in the Excited States

During our time in New York I heard the sirens of first responders far less often than I do at home in Vancouver. Almost raised on Hill Street Blues, I expected to see take-downs on every corner. It never happened.

New York City is an amazingly safe place to be in the Excited States. There is less crime here, of all kinds, than in most American cities. According to statistics from the FBI in 2012, the murder rate in NYC was 5.1 per 100,000 people. In Tucson the murder rate was 8.1, in Baltimore 34.9 and Detroit clocked in at an impressive 54.6 murders for every 100,000 people. In Toronto it was only 1.5 in 2012, which was actually lower than the Canadian rate of 1.8 murders for every 100,000. In Australia during the same year the murder rate was 1.2 per 100,000.

Policing makes a difference as do attitudes around punishment and class. New York's policing has changed dramatically over the past 40 years and it is often presented as a model for the rest of the nation. Serious crime in NYC is lower in almost every category when compared to other cities in the US.

Policing and a sense of community are important, but few things are better at telling us what a nation really cares about than how it spends its money, and in the Excited States, it's all about the money. By that definition, Americans like to punish.

In 2010 the US spent about $80 billion on jails and prisons, which is about $260 for every person in the country. On food stamps, something people from other nations have trouble comprehending, the budget was $227 per person.

In 2012, 2.2 million Americans were in jail or prison, which, by itself, per capita, is more than any other nation on earth. Yet another 4.6 million were under some sort of correctional supervision, for a grand total of almost 7 million.

Apart from violent crimes, to which the US excels, American crime rates are actually comparable to countries like Canada, Australia and the EU. What is different is the way the US chooses to imprison people for lesser offences. Over the past 40 years the nation has become ever more determined to punish its offenders; education, jobs, welfare and rehabilitation have all been left behind the desire to make people pay.

That push to punish has disproportionately impacted race in America as 11% of all black males between the ages of 20 and 34 are in jail or prison. Half the entire state and federal prison population is black, though African Americans make up only 12% of the population. Increasing economic inequality and the distinction of class is playing its role too. As the elite become ever more distant from the bottom 90, it's easier to be more punitive towards the poor.

Crime and punishment in the US is out of whack somehow, with the times and the rest of the world. How can this insanity be happening in such a rich and wonderful country? But then again, why can't the US do something, anything, about its gun problem?

Still, I hear more police sirens at night in Vancouver than I ever did in Manhattan. What does that tell us I wonder.
"Let's be careful out there."

Hill Street Blues image from NBC. 
Other photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.