Crime

We're All Felons, Now

Perpetual public fear of crime has turned us all into criminals.

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"There's no way to rule innocent men.
The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals.
Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them.
One declares so many things to be a crime
that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."

Ayn Rand 

Violent crime is down America, across the board, spanning two decades. Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced that the incidence of reported rape had hit a 20-year low. Homicides are down, as are juvenile violence and crimes committed against children. Crime rates have been plummeting since the early 1990s to such an extent that explaining the drop has become something of an obsession among criminologists and sociologists.

Part of the drop can of course be explained by mass incarceration—America leads the world in the percentage of its population behind bars. Putting one in every 100 citizens in jail causes its own problems, and there's plenty of debate over just how much that incarceration has contributed to the fall in violent crime. But there's no question that we've put lots of people in prison over the last 20 years, the crime rate has fallen, and part of the public likely believes (with some justification) that there's a link betweent the two.

But there's something else going on too, picked up in the blogosphere last week by George Washington University political science Professor John Sides. According to Gallup, since 2002 the percentage of the American public who think violent crime is on the rise has been increasing, even as actual violent crime rates continue to fall. Sides notes that from 1989 to 2001, perception and reality somewhat went hand in hand. But 2002 to 2003 saw a 19 percent leap in public perceptions that violent crime was on the uptick, and the figure has been going up in the years since—to 74 percent today. What's going on?

From the time Richard Nixon made crime a national political issue in the 1970s, we've been conditioned by politicians and public officials to live in perpetual fear. Our baseline is that there's too much crime, and that we aren't doing enough about it. Despite that, there was an actually drop in public worry about crime that began in 1992 and continued until 2002. As noted, that drop corresponded with an actual decline in the national crime rate, something that hadn't happened in 30 years. That crime rates going down for the first time in a generation was something new, something worth noticing. The 1990s were also generally an optimistic decade. The economy was humming. We weren't engaged in any major wars. We didn't have many worries, period.

Post-2002, the national mood soured. Terrorism, obviously a form of violent crime, was all over the news. The economy slowed down. Illegal immigration once again became a national issue, along with the false assumption that undocumented immigrants bring violent crime. And so we returned to a state of fear, though the crime rate continued to fall.

These fluctuations in the Gallup poll are interesting, but it's worth noting that the percentage of respondents who believe violent crime is on the rise has dipped below 60 percent only three times since 1991. This, again, despite the fact that violent crime has been in decline over the entire period.

Fear makes for easy politics. It both wins votes and primes us to give government more power at the expense of personal liberty. And that's certainly true when it comes to crime. With the possible exception of an incumbent mayor, politicians only benefit from exaggerating the threat of violent crime. Senators, Congressmen, and even governors are rarely held responsible when the crime rate goes up. But they do win votes by proposing new powers for police and prosecutors to bring it down.

The result has been a one-way ratchet effect on crime policy. We're perpetually expanding police and prosecutorial power, a process only occasionally slowed by the courts. Congress and state legislatures rarely take old criminal statutes off the books, but they're always adding new ones. A 2008 report from the Heritage Foundation estimates that at the federal level alone, Congress has been adding about 55 new crimes to the federal criminal code each year since the 1980s. There are now about 4,500 separate federal crimes. And that doesn't include federal regulations, which are increasingly being enforced with criminal, not administrative, penalties. It also doesn't include the increasing leeway with which prosecutors can enforce broadly written federal conspiracy, racketeering, and money laundering laws. And this is before we even get to the states' criminal codes.

In his new book, the Boston-based civil liberties advocate and occasional Reason contributor Harvey Silverglate estimates that in 2009, the average American commits about three federal felonies per day. And yet, we aren't a nation of degenerates. On the contrary, most social indicators have been moving in a positive direction for a generation. Silverglate argues we're committing these crimes unwittingly. The federal criminal code has become so vast and open to interpretation, Silverglate argues, that a U.S. Attorney can find a way to charge just about anyone with violating federal law. In fact, it's nearly impossible for some business owners to comply with one federal regulation without violating another one. We're no longer governed by laws, we're governed by the whims of lawyers.

Whatever one may think of Ayn Rand's political philosophy or ethics, her criminal justice prophecy has proven unsettlingly accurate: In our continuing eagerness to purge American society of crime, we've allowed the government to make us all into criminals.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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  1. Whatever disagreements I have with Objectivists/ism, Rand did have a lot prescient insights. That quote is one of them – it was one of the most powerful parts of Atlas Shrugged.

    One contributor to the trend of perception-versus-reality has to be local TV news. Even when crime is on the down sweep, they do trumpet every violent crime as loudly as possible. “If it bleeds, it leads” didn’t become a cliche for no reason.

    1. And what disagreements would that be?

      1. Her idea about women presidents, for one. Her belief that we are essentially tabula rasa when born. Her aesthetics.

  2. It is not the politicians so much as it is the media. IF it bleeds it leads on local and now national news. People sit in their homes and are bombared by nothing but crime with no context. If your only exposure to crime and crime statistics was through watching the eleven o’clock news, you would think that crime was running rampant to.

    1. Yeah, blame the media. How about blaming the people that do noting but let their minds be poisoned by the idiot box.

      Bad things are almost always more news worth than good things. Ducks cross the road isn’t as interesting as Ducks ran over by SUV while crossing road. We can play 2 minutes hate with SUV for do such a bad deed.

      1. Most people do not have the time nor the inclination to look deeply into subjects like crime. Rather than expect people to do something we know they won’t do, how about just expecting the media to be something besides braying jackasses and give some context.

        They could even do so for PC reasons. I mean honestly, if you just watched the news would you think there were any black people in the world who weren’t race hustlers or gang bangers?

      2. the fact that something is newsworthy means it’s out of the ordinary

  3. What was it some dude once said about liberty and security, and what happens when you trade the one for the other?

    1. By some dude, do you mean a lover of the French whore?

      1. Sorry, that doesn’t really narrow it down much. They’re pretty great at what they do.

        1. Seriously… It was a Franklin reference.

        2. hahaha good stuff.

    2. Idk, but I’ve always like this one:

      “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”

      ~ Benjamin Franklin

      1. And those who would give up Essential Safety to purchase a little Temporary Liberty, neither deserve or will have either.

        Let us begin by defining “essential” and “temporary”; too many of those who call themselves libertarians have wished to avoid that debate.

    1. WOW. that speech is revolting. im really glad i dont live in nyc

  4. This doesn’t look like a decline in crime to me: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/hmrt.htm

    It looks like a big increase in crime during the last hundred years.

    1. I think two guys with guns shooting at each other… and one dies wasn’t even considered a crime prior to 1900 was it? That was just some farger gittin’ what he deserved… Unless every western I’ve ever seen is wrong

    2. Compare that with the number of laws on the books then, and now.

    3. Compare that with the number of laws on the books then, and now.

    4. This graph really brings into sharp relief how you have one huge crime homicide wave corresponding with prohibition and a second corresponding pretty closely with the war on drugs. It doesn’t seem so outrageous to suspect that the low murder rate in the 50’s had something to do with the fact that law enforcement wasn’t actively clamping down on any drugs at that time. (although I also wonder whether this includes lynchings)

  5. Fuller quote

    “Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We *want* them broken. You’d better get it straight That it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against? then you’ll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted ? and you create a nation of law-breakers ? and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”
    — Ayn Rand, _Atlas Shrugged

  6. Wait until we’re awash in hate crimes legislation.

  7. Ah, but notice it’s not just a crime problem . Nixon began by announcing it as a ” War on Crime”. Politicians just love war. See, in peacetime, it’s a citizen’s duty to watch, ask questions, and be ready make a ruckus about what’s going on. But in war, it’s your duty to shut up and obey, not ask questions or make observations about reality vs promise. That’s ” helping the enemy”.

    And so it’s no accident we’re in an interminable series of wars: war on drugs, war on crime, war on poverty, war on terror at home ( in addition to whatever expedition is currently out in the back of beyond). Soon there will be a war on “hate crimes”, on obesity, potholes, on tooth decay. In every case, the only choice offered is and will be : shut up and obey.

    Where else in history has a government been so wedded to the “war” analogy?
    “Shock Workers Storm Production Objectives”; ” Help Win the Struggle on the Anti- Typhus Front”; and that old -time favorite ” Exterminate the Kulaks”. That’s right, the Soviet Union. Under Stalin.

    That’s the track we’re headed down today.

  8. I remember I had to put the book On Killing down after reading his hand-wringing passages about how our poor, mush-brained youth were being turned into mindless killing machines because of the proliferation of violent video games.

    1. Yeah, as if video games make you a better killer than say, a tour in the military.

    2. Care to explain a little more? I’ve had that book recommended to me several times, but haven’t had a chance to pick it up.

      The internets make it difficult to detect sarcasm…

      1. I caught the whiff of Melodrama very early on with the Dave Grossman.

        If I recall, he’s some sort of military analyst who’s studied the effects of compat on soldiers. The book has the potential of being very interesting. I’m sure his insights into studying the behaviors of combatants on the battle field have merit. But he started extrapolating his musings onto society as a whole, and became bogged down in the relentless rise of teen violence (violent video games, natch) and how we were doomed as a society if we didn’t get a handle on it.

        I finally just stopped reading it.

        A friend of mine read his other book titled On Combat and came to very similar parrallel consclusions without us consulting eachother on his books. So I feel pretty safe that I didn’t judge his book too harshly.

      2. To wit:

        Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill! (By Dave Grossman)

        There is perhaps no bigger or more important issue in America at present than youth violence. Jonesboro; Paducah; Pearl, Mississippi; Stamps, Arkansas; Conyers, Georgia; and, of course, Littleton, Colorado. We know them all too well, and for all the wrong reasons: kids, some as young as eleven years old, taking up arms and, with deadly, frightening accuracy, murdering anyone in their paths.

        Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuunnnnn…

        1. It gets better:

          Their book is a much-needed call to action for every parent, teacher, and citizen to help our children and stop the wave of killing and violence gripping America’s youth.

          Read at your own risk.

          1. Interesting…

            Every time I read his essay “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs” I get chills up my spine.

            http://mwkworks.com/onsheepwolvesandsheepdogs.html

  9. In his new book, the Boston-based civil liberties advocate and occasional Reason contributor Harvey Silverglate estimates that in 2009, the average American commits about three federal felonies per day.

    Radley, I almost never have a complaint about one of your articles, even when it depresses the hell out of me. But this time you didn’t deliver. That pull quote, and most of the supporting paragraph, is the only part of the article that supports the title. You suckered me in! I wanted to hear more about these federal crimes I’m breaking, and you just plugged a book at me!

    1. Here you go…

      Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (Hardcover)

      This is a very thoughtful and vigorously argued book about the injustices that arise when prosecutors seek to expand the reach of federal criminal statutes beyond their proper field of application. The author has litigated many of the cases he discusses, and is able to translate the complexities of that experience intelligently and without condescension, but also without all of the unnecessary technical details that lawyers writing for a general audience sometimes get bogged down in.

      http://www.amazon.com/Three-Fe…..=8-1-spell

  10. Fear makes for easy jounalism too. “If it bleeds it leads” simply reflects the low cost/high interest logic behind crime coverage at the expense of investigative reporting into corporate crime or government corruption. Private news organizations deserve a lot of the blame for this.

  11. Most people do not have the time nor the inclination to look deeply into subjects like crime.

    Get it right. Keeping up with reality isn’t mindless fun like American Idol and Survivor idiocy.

    Americans have more free time now than they ever had. The blame for ignorance of basic reality can be laid right at the feet of the citizenry.

  12. Those that would remake the country must destroy it first. One effective way to do that is by encouraging lawlessness by expanding the codes to the point that nobody takes them seriously.

  13. I tried breaking my town’s ordinance against handing out fliers that were not pre-approved so that I could callenge the ordinance in court on free speech grounds. The local police (who pushed for the ordinance in the first place) refuse to press charges against me.

    1. You’re not dark skinned, are you?

  14. I’m breaking a Federal law right now. Guess which one…

    1. Something to do with child porn?

  15. Why can’t you just say “Ayn Rand was right?” Why apologize for recognizing that fact? We are all big boys and can understand the fact that just because someone is right in one area doesn’t make them right in every area. I never see this sort of caveat with leftists unless it is of the mass murderer sort… Mao, Stalin etc… It is common with Rush and Rand though as if they are in the same category as the others. They may be right but we mustn’t be seen agreeing with them.

    I also agree with the other poster. The article was a bit of a bait and switch based on its title.

  16. Is “pingback” some sort of bot?

    1. No, it’s just a notice that someone has linked to the blog post.

  17. “Illegal immigration once again became a national issue, along with the false assumption that undocumented immigrants bring violent crime.”

    Wrong. It came with the realization that illegal immigrants who had already been in custody or had had brushes with the police, occasionally multiple times, had been allowed to remain in the country and subsequently committed violent crimes. Did media sensationalism have something to do with it? Yes. Politics? Yes. But should they have been in the country when they committed their violent crimes, would they have been there with a proper enforcement of immigration law? No.

  18. The post is conflating two unrelated issues, which are the public fear of violent crime and the proliferation of the federal criminal code. Most of this proliferation doesn’t deal with violent crime, but with conduct that most people wouldn’t see as being criminal.
    As a former fed, I am not sure if I agree with Prof. Sides that we commit three felonies a day (then, of course, I haven’t read his book). However, anyone over 35 who isn’t still living with his mom and dad has probably committed at least one serious federal felony. Every now and again the feds comes after somebody for one of these iffy sorts of crimes, and that somebody is usually surprised to find that the “everybody does it” defense doesn’t fly.

  19. It would be interesting to see the correlation between “crime shows” on television and the growth in perceived violent crime.

  20. Garrison Keillor (sp?) once said that you learn more about the world by drinking gin straight from the bottle than you do by watching the local news.

  21. Thankfully we have an Administration and a Congress that doesn’t take these legal dust-ups seriously. With Charlie Rangel, Chris Dodd, Tim Geithner, and a host of others all on the wrong side of some law or regulation, our leaders have chosen a magnanimous and pragmatic approach. They ignore the problem.

    Obviously, their legal generosity will extend to everyone, making this article of only academic interest.
    /sarc

  22. I doubt the claim that crime is really down. What of reports over recent years that cities were down-sizing their stats? (Rape=sexual assault; murder=manslaughter;…) I suspect that it’s about as bad as ever.

  23. They even have sting operations for jaywalkers!

    1. And it’s a good thing, too! You know if people are taking shortcuts across the street, they’re on their way to do no good. They must be stopped at all costs!

  24. I don’t believe crime is going down, how is it possible when there are hundreds of thousands of crackheads and methheads that did not exist 20 years ago?

  25. Balko tells us that “a U.S. Attorney can find a way to charge just about anyone with violating federal law.”

    Check out the balloon boy saga:

    >>”We do anticipate at some point in the future, there will be some criminal charges filed with regards to this incident,” Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said.

    If the incident was a hoax, the only charge local authorities could press would be making a false report to authorities — a Class 3 misdemeanor, Alderden told reporters Saturday.

    However, a misdemeanor “hardly seems serious enough given the circumstances,” the sheriff said.

    “We certainly want to talk to FAA officials and federal officials to see if perhaps there aren’t additional federal charges that would be more appropriate in the circumstances than what we’re able to do locally,” he said.

  26. “Radley Balko argues that the disconnect is due to politicians who exploit our fear of crime to get elected.”

    How about libertarian propaganda fucks who exploit our fear of SWAT teams to advance a hopeless and silly political ideology?

    1. Sneaky libertarians!

  27. just the inevitable evolution/devolution depending on your point of view into a totalarian society that all governments will eventually reach if they survive long enough.

    they say we can’t be trusted to rule ourselves, why then do we trust those who say they cannot be trusted to rule us?

  28. Americans are bed-wetting hysterics.

  29. The solution is simple: ignore the government. Don’t like them scare you. Its called “big brother” cuz its a bully. You can’t beat up a bully cuz they’re bigger than you. But you can certainly walk away. And when enough people walk away, the bully ends up crying in the corner cuz he’s got no friends.

    1. It get’s hard to ignore them once they decide to lock you in a small room for several years.

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  31. Great post! It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what Rand’s opinion would be of the current political environment. She’d sink her teeth in Obama’s administration. Crime may be down statistically, but I don’t buy it in reality. In fact, if there aren’t some pretty swift economic improvements, I fear we’ll see major increases in the U.S. crime rates.

    Nick
    http://www.wastedcarbon.com

  32. It seems like you’ve hit on the culture of fear that Michael Moore points out in one of his movies. It is also the same Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt used by large corporations. See also the truth about microsoft

  33. Thanks for sharing… interesting perspective.

    The author seems to agree that we have reduced crime rates due to higher rates of incarceration. So, clearly, that strategy is working.

    However, he has few concrete evidence to prove his point how “the average American commits about three federal felonies per day”, or how “it’s nearly impossible for some business owners to comply with one federal regulation without violating another one” or what kinds of new crimes are being added to the federal code each year, or what kinds of federal regulations are being punished by “criminal, not administrative, penalties”.

    Anyone can make generic statements, but I would like to see some concrete examples before I hit the panic button 🙂

    In this internet age, “success” is counted by the number of page-hits one gets. Increasingly, I have started suspecting people write stuff just for creating controversies, rather than actually sharing real information or a meaningful view-point. Even with that in the back of my mind, I am amazed by the leap of imagination this author has shown 🙂

  34. Don’t forget that the figures just show reported crime – if the cops don’t mark it down, it didn’t happen, regardless of who is left bleeding in the gutter. Over here in Nanny State Britannia, major crimes get included, as do extremely minor soft crimes which can easily be solved by issuing a fixed penalty notice. Violent crime where it’s either too un-politically correct to follow up, or where some desk jockey decides that pursuing it will cause more violence or riots never reaches the statistics.

    Ask anyone here and they will say that violent crime is on the increase – because they or someone they know has experienced it. And yet the stats say recorded violent crime has fallen. The answer is really simple; they’re not recording it.

  35. It makes little sense to pay for law enforcement and frustrate their efforts by taxpayers refusing to report crimes.
    Systems that work provide ability to identify and report crimes for which law enforcement can be held accountable for investigating those crimes. Otherwise, there can be no expectation of excellence or efficiency for law compliance. Since sources may be anonymous tips and still be valuable to law enforcement, anonymous tips are adequate to allow law enforcement the possibility of making necessary connections where they may exist.

  36. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp.

  37. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books.

  38. It makes little sense to pay for law enforcement and frustrate their efforts by taxpayers refusing to report crimes.

  39. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets

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  42. “But 2002 to 2003 saw a 19 percent leap in public perceptions that violent crime was on the uptick, and the figure has been going up in the years since?to 74 percent today. What’s going on?”

    9/11 and terrorism in general, which the right especially used to political advantage by relentlessly fearmongering, then a half-black President, which the right especially used to political advantage by relentlessly fearmongering.

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