Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice


Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice, by Charles E. Silberman, New York: Random House, 1978, 540 pp., $15.

"All over the United States, people worry about criminal violence." These opening words from Charles Silberman's Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice may well be true, but the recent proliferation of books on criminology and penology suggest that most of the "worrying" is really being done by supposedly do-gooding sociologists. Perhaps the age-old problem of crime is in fact no worse today than when man first appeared on earth, and it is just that the relatively new breed of social scientists have led us to believe that matters are much worse today—if only to justify their own existence as the only profession capable of solving the "problem."

Silberman's own goal is not to solve the problems of our criminal justice system but to explain them: "My goal is…to correct errors and clear up misunderstandings [but also] to change the way Americans think about criminals and crime and about the operation of our system of criminal justice." The question for us, then, is, How well does Silberman explain the state of crime and criminal justice?

While on the one hand he repeatedly reminds us that crime is a universal problem, as old as life itself, on the other hand he goes out of his way to argue that, in the United States, much crime is due to peculiarly American characteristics: "American crime is an outgrowth of the greatest strengths and virtues of American society—its openness, its ethos of equality, its heterogeneity—as well as of its greatest vices, such as the long heritage of racial hatred and oppression." Perhaps our inability to eliminate crime stems from our unique passion for a combination of liberty and community, but this does not really explain the specifically American penchant for criminality—if indeed there is such a thing.

What Silberman claims is characteristic of many criminals in the United States is, in fact, more characteristic of the crime fighter or even of our criminal justice system as a whole. Silberman himself returns to this American dilemma when he laments the excessive discretion of the sentencing process. He accepts this because, in the long run, it tends to protect individual liberty: "Diffusion creates a certain untidiness that fastidious legal scholars find upsetting; but when people's lives and liberties are at stake, untidiness may be preferable to an antiseptically neat and conceptually clean sentencing system."

One of the most refreshing qualities of Silberman's work—and it is surely unusual to read anything particularly refreshing in the field of criminology of late—is his unfailing recognition that however many "societal" factors may contribute to a criminal's behavior, ultimately the individual himself is responsible for his actions. To be sure, he does not quite escape the liberals' emphasis on poverty and race as "causes" of crime, but he stops short of accepting these so-called causes as excusing conditions. To those who would dismiss this seemingly tough stance toward criminals (who are mostly black and poor) as evidence of racism, Silberman replies by turning the tables on them: "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 or of assuming responsibility for their own actions and choices."

Silberman's book could have been considerably shorter. The first part—a detailed description of criminal violence, mainly in the United States—is crammed full of statistical data and footnotes. The reader cannot help, at times, but feel that he is reading a doctoral dissertation, more concerned with at least the appearance of completeness than with presenting a clear, concise, and cogent argument. By the time we reach the real meat of Silberman's thesis in the second part of the book—his prescription for improving our criminal justice system—we are ravenously hungry to hear some "solutions." Even then we get only an excessively lengthy exposition of utopian "alternatives."

Although too timidly formulated, much of Silberman's exposition is insightful, lucid, and thought-provoking. Citing the plethora of explanations for our admittedly inadequate and inept criminal justice system, Silberman emphasizes what is all too often ignored—that much of the ineffectual nature of criminology is due to medicine having, as it were, infected it. He traces the source of the infection back to the turn of the century, when Enrico Ferri conceived the idea of making criminology "scientific" by applying medical metaphors to it: criminals would no longer be "bad," only "sick," and law enforcement agencies would "treat" rather than "punish" offenders.

Silberman notes that ever since then, "liberals have been addicted to medical metaphors" and, more importantly, observes that such a language is deceptive as well as self-deceptive: "Far from eliminating punishment,…an emphasis on rehabilitation simply continues punishment under another name. Whether an offender is 'treated' or not, forced deprivation of liberty constitutes a punitive act." While all lovers of freedom and clear speaking might here applaud Silberman, we must stop short of a standing ovation: his failure to mention, let alone discuss, the use and abuse of psychiatry and the insanity defense as excusing tactics in the courtroom can only puzzle us.

Silberman's discussion of juvenile justice is likely to provoke the least reaction—if only because we can all agree on how badly the juvenile court system works in this country. Children are "charged" with "status offenses"—incorrigibility, ungovernability, truancy, to name a few—actions that would not remotely resemble criminal activity if engaged in by an adult. Furthermore, however much we may complain about the lack of due process for adult criminals, the situation for minors is far worse—and deteriorating: to Silberman's long list of abuses we can add one of the latest Supreme Court decisions: a child may now be locked up in a mental institution (sent away for "treatment") by his parents without so much due process as a simple hearing beforehand.

Still, no matter how disappointed we may be with Silberman's failure to take a firmer stand, we cannot be dissatisfied with the book as a whole. He has managed to bring together numerous views on criminal justice, from liberal to conservative, and has presented each fairly, criticizing where criticism is due. But it should be noted in closing that Silberman does have one specific suggestion for our criminal justice system that is easily lost in his own lengthy presentation but that should not be ignored: he strongly favors transforming the police from a "law enforcement agency" into a "public service agency." This seems to be nothing more than a euphemism for a potentially much larger role for the police—and for government as a whole. The criminal is undeniably a threat to a free society, but is this not an even greater threat?

Susan Marie Szasz, a reference librarian at Cornell University, has done graduate work in political theory in the University of Virginia's Department of Government.