We have jailed too many young men. There are too many instances of bad policing. How can we create a future with less crime and fewer inmates? Edward Glaeser reviews ‘Uneasy Peace’ by Patrick Sharkey.
As 2017 came to a close, early projections indicated that America’s overall murder rate for the year was poised to fall, ending a two-year upward trend in American homicide. Among the country’s largest 30 cities, however, the results were roughly split between cities like New York, where the murder rate fell, and places such as Baltimore, where the number increased.
Patrick Sharkey’s insightful and engaging “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence” helps us take stock of the past 50 years of crime in America. Mr. Sharkey is a sociologist at New York University and provides an excellent introduction to America’s up-and-down urban-violence roller-coaster ride. Most important, he offers an antidote to those who think that the police are more the problem than the solution. He urges a middle way for fighting violence, combining neighborhood self-regulation with more effective, more socially astute policing.
The book asks three questions. Why has crime declined so much since the 1990s? How big were the benefits from that decline? How should we reform crime fighting in the shadow of mass incarceration, the Black Lives Matter movement and the high murder rates in cities like Chicago and Detroit?
Crime waves and their reduction can be roughly attributed to two causes: the presence of easy targets; and the supply of crime-prone individuals, such as the “superpredators” made famous by John DiIulio. Mr. Sharkey wisely emphasizes changes in the costs and difficulties of crime rather than any fundamental changes in human nature.
He is respectful toward the hypothesis of John Donohue and Steven Levitt that more abortions led to less crime, but thinks that the “impact was likely small in magnitude.” He similarly eschews other hypotheses that emphasize changes in the number of crime-prone individuals, except for the rise of mass incarceration: “The impact of imprisonment on crime,” he writes, “is largely the result of incapacitation, the removal of potential offenders from the streets.” Mr. Levitt drew a similar conclusion in his work on prisons during the 1990s.
Instead, Mr. Sharkey emphasizes the importance of changes in the costs of committing crime—i.e., the increase or decrease in the number of easy targets. He reminds readers of the work of Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson, who theorized that, as women left their homes in the 1960s, they made both themselves and their houses more vulnerable. In Mr. Sharkey’s view, much of the progress against crime since the 1990s has occurred because “opportunities for criminal activity began to shrink” as “streets that had been abandoned for decades were taken over by police officers, security guards, and community groups.” Crime stops when noncriminals dominate the urban space.
In recent years, the victories over crime have been derided. Some liberals now see police misbehavior as a worse scourge than street criminals. The second section of Mr. Sharkey’s book shows the error of this view. He estimates that “an African American boy born at the end of the crime wave could expect to live, on average, about three-quarters of a year longer due purely to the drop in homicides,” which is “roughly equivalent to the impact of eliminating obesity altogether.”
Saving lives is the greatest benefit of the war against crime, but safety also makes it easier for students to concentrate on work and escape poverty. Mr. Sharkey shows that “children do substantially worse on standard tests of cognitive skills . . . when there has been a homicide near their home” and that “children who reached their teenage years at a time when the level of violence had subsided were substantially more likely to move upward in the income distribution by early adulthood.” A safe city means a place where the rich and the poor can interact without fear and where “parents feel more comfortable allowing their children to walk home from a park or a community center after school.”
But while Mr. Sharkey compellingly illustrates the benefits of a reduction in crime, he views the country’s current situation as an “uneasy peace.” We have incarcerated too many young men. There are too many instances of police abuse. Some cities, like Chicago, have seen crime rates surge again.
The final section of Mr. Sharkey’s book focuses on creating a better future, with less crime and fewer inmates. He would like to see a “durable urban policy” to fight poverty but realistically is “not optimistic about the prospects for a large-scale federal agenda to address urban inequality.” He is more hopeful about “a multilevel, multisector agenda to fortify urban neighborhoods and confront violence.”
Mr. Sharkey is certainly right that crime fighting is deeply social. Good policing works with neighborhoods, not against them, and leverages the “eyes on the street” that are everywhere in dense cities. As police reform moves forward, Mr. Sharkey’s book offers a sensible, pragmatic approach that avoids the liberals’ hot antipolice rhetoric and the conservatives’ knee-jerk defense of every police action. This involves less imprisonment and more neighborhood policing. It requires police officers to treat ordinary citizens with respect, not only because citizens pay for their salaries but also because strong community relations make for effective policing.
Since the 1990s, America’s cities have seen a reduction in crime, but it has come at the terrible price of years lost to the prison system. Mr. Sharkey is right that the time has come to figure out how to lower that price.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
Edward L. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and contributing editor at City Journal.