December 6, 1999
Volume 52, No. 14
Agnew says rehab, prevention keys to lowering crime
Robert Agnew said he had originally planned to discuss the myths and realities of crime in the United States in his Last Lecture Nov. 30 in Harris Hall, but he changed his mind and decided to explore what America does to control crime, how well it's working and what alternatives are available.
Agnew, a professor of sociology, directs the Violence Studies Program. Speaking for an intimate group of students, staff and faculty in Harris' parlor, he said the modus operandi for dealing with crime in the United States since the early 1970s has been to punish more criminals more harshly, and he rattled off a litany of statistics to prove it.
For example, per capita imprisonment has increased more than fourfold in the last quarter-century. In the early '70s, the United States imprisoned about 200,000 people; today that number stands at 1.3 million, with another 600,000 in jail on any given day awaiting their judicial procedures. American prisons are operating at 127 percent of capacity, Agnew said, and the average prison term has more than tripled in the past three decades.
"With the exception of homicides, the U.S. crime rate is pretty even with the other industrialized countries of the world, but our rate of imprisonment is six to 10 times higher," Agnew said. "In fact, our rate of imprisonment is the highest in the world except for Russia, and Russia simply doesn't have enough money to maintain its rate.
"So we won the Cold War, and we're winning in this too," Agnew said wryly.
This "get tough" approach has meant fewer and fewer efforts toward prevention of crime and rehabilitation of criminals, Agnew said. He told the story of Michael Lewis, who made headlines two years ago at the age of 13. Lewis-"Little B" to his friends-shot and killed Darrell Woods while Woods waited in his car at an Atlanta convenience store with his two children in the back seat.
"So this juvenile who one day was deserving of our sympathy becomes a monster the next day," Agnew said of Lewis, who grew up without a father and with a crack-addicted mother. "Most people are unaware of the Little B's of the world; politicians don't care about them, and little is done to help them."
Little B made the additional mistake of committing his crime in Georgia, Agnew said, where 13-year-olds and above are automatically tried as adults if they are accused of one of seven crimes-"the seven deadly sins," Agnew said-such as murder, rape and other serious offenses.
The rationale behind get-tough approaches is that they serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals, Agnew said, and their proponents also argue an "incapacitation effect," saying that criminals cannot commit crimes if they are in prison.
But are these arguments valid? Agnew said there is little evidence in the literature that stricter punishments have any effect on recidivism; the deterrence effect on the general population is modest, and that only when the certainty of punishment is increased, not the severity. Severity of punishment has no effect, he said, unless accompanied by an increased certainty. Indeed, he said some studies have shown that "boot camps" for juvenile offenders can actually turn the prisoners more toward crime.
Still, Agnew said rehabiliation and prevention programs are starting to gain more favor as people realize that getting tough is not always the answer. He said a study of one rehab program in California showed the program cut recidivism by 50 percent. And he added the programs not only work, but are cost-effective, often paying for themselves in terms of saved court and police costs, fewer welfare expenditures and increased taxes paid by possible criminals who find gainful employment.
"I should make it clear that I do believe there are people who belong in prison," Agnew concluded, "but they should receive rehabilitation in prison and be better when they leave, not worse."