- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

A new report from the Justice Department is welcome ammunition for the growing debate over lengthy prison sentences for career criminals. Last year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent and property crimes fell to their lowest levels in thirty years. As a result, 21 million fewer Americans were victimized last year than in 1973, when 44 million of our fellow citizens were victims of violent or property crimes. The survey measures crimes committed against U.S. residents age twelve and up. The decrease applied in every region of the country, in suburbs and inner cities, at all income levels, and across all racial and ethnic groups.

In 2002, about 23 out of every 1,000 people fell victim to violent criminals. In 1993, 50 out of every 1,000 were victimized by violent attackers. Property crimes like auto theft and burglary also fell dramatically, to 159 victims out of every 1,000 compared to 319 victims out of every 1,000 in 1993. The only crime not included in the Justice Department survey was murder, which is separately reported by the FBI and for which final statistics for 2002 are not yet available.

Many criminologists, such as John Dilulio, had predicted a dramatic increase in crime, especially violent crime, in this first decade of the 21st century. That crime wave has not materialized because of what Indiana University law professor Frank Bowman in The New York Times called “incapacitation.” Mr. Bowman says a small percentage of career criminals commit a disproportionate number of crimes, and that incarcerating them for lengthy mandatory sentences has the effect of incapacitating their ability to keep committing crimes.

Others credit the deterrent value of three-strikes laws and stiff mandatory sentences. University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt studied the results of California’s 1982 increase in mandatory sentences for specific crimes and concluded that in the three years after the new sentences were imposed, crime rates dropped faster for those crimes than the overall rates. Criminals, it seems, pay attention to the correlation between crime and punishment.

That is more than can be said for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who recently inveighed against mandatory sentences as “unwise and unjust.” What can be deemed unwise and unjust about sentencing laws which have spared an average of 20 million Americans a year from crime? If Justice Kennedy is unpersuaded by a 50 percent decrease in crime rates, what will convince him that our lawmakers are on the right track with mandatory sentences? How much more must crime drop — 75 percent, 100 percent — before Justice Kennedy admits the obvious? Scores of millions of Americans have a better quality of lifetoday because about 5.6 million criminals have been or are still incarcerated and thereby incapable of preying on the innocent.

Before mandatory sentencing, America used to be more dangerous than Europe. The reverse is now true. In 2001, Paris had 147 crimes per 1,000 people. Seventy percent involved violent attacks or weapons. If Justice Kennedy has forgotten what life was like before mandatory sentencing, perhaps he should visit France.

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