Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Last October, Attorney General William Barr drew attention for a fiery speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame. Barr asserted that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground” in America–measures such as illegitimacy, violence, and suicide rates. This has happened because Americans are losing their self-control. People are naturally “subject to powerful passions and appetites” and thus to “licentiousness.” In a free society, restraining licentiousness requires an “internal controlling power.” Only religion, faith in “an authority independent of men’s will . . . a transcendent Supreme Being,” can inhibit these passions. In the last 50 years, Barr contended, we have experienced a loss of inhibition because “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” Organized forces of secularism have promoted the “destruction” of religion, especially through government by, for example, restricting prayer in school, legalizing abortion, and inserting LGBT curricula into the schools.

Moral duty, Barr concluded, required using the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom. That would restore Americans’ self-control and thus reverse the tide of pathology. “We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor.”

Barr pic

Source: South Bend Tribune

The howls from the Left over this speech focused on the specter of Barr using the DOJ’s powers to weigh in on the conservative side of the great Culture Wars. My concern here is simply to ask, How factually correct is Barr’s story? His is a sweeping, powerful, and consequential description of recent American history. Is it true?

I address Barr’s argument from first cause to final result: Are religion and faith in decline and, if so, because of secularists’ attacks? Does religion provide and is it necessary for free people’s self-control? Has Americans’ self-control weakened? Has there been increasing social pathology and, if there has, is weakening self-control the explanation?

I approach this topic with some empathy. Barr is a serious Catholic; I am an active member (and past president) of my synagogue. We are on the same side of the divide between organized religion and mobilized secularists. However, the historical facts are clear and they are not on Barr’s side.


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It is now well-understood that lead in the bloodstream, even at levels once thought negligible, harms people, especially children. Discovery, in the mid-2010s, of dangerous lead levels in the water of Flint, Michigan, brought this home to many Americans. Even as the United States purged paint and gasoline of lead and closed lead-emitting smelting plants, lead residues in millions of older homes, in the soil near high-traffic roads, and, as in the case of Flint, in many water pipes persisted.

Lead poisoning is a story of environment and health; it is also a story of environment and behavior. Although lead was a known poison when it was first added to gasoline nearly a century ago, only in recent decades have studies pointed to lead poisoning as a cause of problematic social behavior ranging from underperforming in school to teen pregnancy to murder. Such findings enrich sociologists’ understanding, but it also makes them nervous about biology’s role in explaining social phenomena. Should it?


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Killing at the hands of an illegal alien spurs furious debate about closing borders and deporting the undocumented. It is the year before a presidential election and candidates denounce undocumented immigrants as the conveyors of Mexican violence into our country. When Robert J. Sampson, Harvard sociologist and criminologist, wrote about this news, he was not writing about the death of young Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015, but about murders in New Jersey in 2007. And he wrote to say that his research and that of others showed that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit murder and “that immigration—even if illegal—is associated with lower crime rates….” He had previously made similar claims in The New York Times and had gotten vituperation in response.

Popular skepticism toward Sampson might be expected given the media coverage of sensational crimes like the one on Pier 14 and of Mexico’s drug wars. But behind the headlines, the daily reality on the streets of the U.S. seems to be that immigrants bring less crime. Indeed, scholars like Sampson have suggested that the surge of Latino immigration, documented and not, may partly explain the great drop in violent crime in American cities since the 1980s.

Now, two presidential cycles since the Sampson article, we have new studies and more technically sophisticated ones on the topic. What do they say about the effects of immigration on crime and violence?


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City Crime; Country Crime

A recent report announced that the huge financial company UBS will be moving back from a suburb of New York into Manhattan, “because it has come to realize it is more difficult to recruit talented people in their 20s to work in the suburbs.” What a (literal) turnaround!

For about a generation, roughly from  the 1970s through the 1990s, the equation, big city equals violent crime, was a taken-for-granted part of how we understood urban life. Movie-makers needed only to zoom in on a block of New York or Chicago to give audiences a dose of stomach-churning anxiety; comedians delivered dark jokes about getting mugged in cities, especially in Manhattan; suburban teens reported fearing the central cities a short drive away. It was a big reason that major corporations moved out of Manhattan.

by Sam Rohn via Mikel Joshua

Yet, today, the image of the big city (and of Manhattan in particular) seems different, infused with romance, allure, excitement, luxury, a place of aspirations – think Sex and the City — rather than fear and avoidance. This is actually a back-to-the-‘50s sensibility about the big city.

In an earlier (and since updated) post, I discussed how violent crime in the United States dropped suddenly and continuously from about 1990 through 2010 and showed how the drop was the last stage of a down-up-down cycle starting after World War II. One aspect of recent drop is the way it has changed the geography of violence. The connection between big city and big crime has weakened greatly; big cities are not as dramatically the places of danger. We may be moving toward an older pattern: that cities are the safer places to live.


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A Crime Puzzle

Violent crime went down in America again last year [2009 — and through 2011; see update below]. According to preliminary statistics from the FBI, the number of violent crimes dropped by about 5 percent from 2008. Given population growth, that means that the rate of violent crime dropped even more. (So did property crime.)

This is a puzzle because (a) violent crime is more common among the poor; (b) the percentage of Americans who are poor has been trending up since about 2000; and (c) the economy tanked last year. One would have expected a rise, not a fall, in violent crime.

But this head-scratcher is just part of a larger puzzle – understanding long-term trends in America’s criminal violence.


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