Punishing Criminals Won't Solve our Real Crime Problem

Bill Kelly

William R. Kelly

“Baltimore killings soar to level unseen in 43 years,” an Associated Press headline announced earlier this week. According to the story, there have been nearly 200 homicides in Baltimore so far this year, compared to 119 by the end of July 2014.

Even before that AP story, the rise in Baltimore homicides had triggered a predictably strong response from local leaders. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony Batts on July 8, declaring that “Too many continue to die on our streets. Families are tired of dealing with this pain, and so am I.”

In her statement, she went on to say: “Recent events have placed an intense focus on our police leadership, distracting many from what needs to be our main focus: the fight against crime.”

Baltimore is not alone in the trend of increasing urban violence in the U.S.

Milwaukee, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago and Houston have all seen murders spike this year. Nor is Baltimore alone in framing the official response to increased violence as a “fight against crime,”—which naturally places the responsibility for addressing it on the criminal justice system and, in particular on local law enforcement. Since police represent the front line in the “fight against crime,” they have been the primary agents tasked with fixing the problem.

Unfortunately, policy makers and local officials have failed to see the bigger picture. The violence in Baltimore and other cities across the U.S. is a symptom of an underlying disorder which, unfortunately, cannot be fixed by our current criminal justice system.

For the past 50 years, we have thought of crime as largely a matter of criminals making bad choices and hanging out with the wrong people. A substantial element in this way of thinking about crime is that offenders act out of some kind of free will. That assumption has guided our responses to crime: punish offenders severely so that they change their decision-making and make better choices.

While there is some truth to this, it tragically misses a vitally important reality.

Offenders engage in crime for a variety of reasons and under a variety of circumstances and constraints. Over 40 percent of criminal offenders who end up in the American criminal justice system have a diagnosable mental illness. Eighty percent of offenders have a substance abuse problem, consisting of abuse, dependence or addiction. Many suffer the neurodevelopmental consequences of growing up in poverty, exposure to violence, living in households characterized by abandonment and chaos, and physical brain trauma, among many others.

Moreover, large segments of the offender population have substantial educational and employment deficits, which severely limit their opportunities to find viable alternatives to criminal activity.

I don't cite this evidence about criminals and their characteristics to excuse bad behavior. Regardless of the underlying causes, crime has profoundly negative consequences for victims, families, neighborhoods, and larger communities. But the evidence suggests the futility of continuing down our well-trod path of punishment- centered, tough-on-crime policies.

Punishment doesn't work because it doesn't do anything to change the underlying conditions, disorders and deficits that characterize the vast majority of criminal offenders. The situation is really not that different from simply treating a fever with aspirin, rather than diagnosing the underlying causes of the fever and treating them.

Unfortunately, we don't even have a sufficient aspirin-equivalent in the criminal justice arsenal.

While there is clear and convincing political pressure on the mayor of Baltimore and public officials in many other large cities across the U.S to address the increase in crime, especially violent crime, the reality is there is little such officials can do under the current criminal justice regime to effectively reduce crime.

This is not just a failure of the American criminal justice system. There are many other facors that must share the blame. To name a few: inadequate public mental health and substance abuse treatment; failed public education, especially in the poorest areas in urban America; unrelenting poverty; absence of adequate neurocognitive and neurodevelopmental interventions; and lack of employment training and jobs.

For a variety of reasons, the justice system has been the default repository for the consequences of many of these institutional failures, and unfortunately, with recidivism rates north of 80 percent, we just seem to make the situation worse.

The good news is that we have the tools today to effectively change behavior.

The scientific evidence is quite clear that correctional intervention and treatment can dramatically reduce recidivism. If we continue to fail to adequately address the reasons people commit crime, why should we expect the situation to change?

We also need to appreciate that we all share some of the responsibility for crime. After all, we elect the public officials who make the decisions about criminal justice policy, mental health and substance abuse treatment, public education, job creation, and poverty.

Editor's Note: For additional reading on this issue, please see TCR's June 9, 2015 Q&A with Prof. Kelly, “Why Tough on Crime Failed.”

William R. Kelly is professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book Criminal Justice at the Crossroads: Transforming Crime and Punishment published by Columbia University Press in May 2015 presents a roadmap for extensive reform of the American criminal justice system. Your comments are welcome.

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