Copping Out

The Challenge of Crime in A Free Society: A Report by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice

US Government Printing Office, 340 pp., $2.25

Reading about our crime problem induces many reflections, all of them melancholy. There is little being done; we fiddle while Detroit burns. Our miserable adventure in Vietnam, that monstrous self-inflicted wound, diverts and divides us at the precise moment when we are about to be overwhelmed by catastrophes within, of which the problem of crime is a mere symptom. If we escape what has become the fire this time, there is a question that in a less frenzied moment someone might pursue: What is it in our national character that forces us to load the dice against ourselves? Why is it that, confronted with a problem that is complicated enough as it stands, we insist on methodically thwarting our own efforts to deal with it, and then expend so much energy and resourcefulness in erasing the complications of our complications? Illustrations abound, but the one at hand will serve.

The President appointed his Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice in July 1965, and ordered it to report in eighteen months, a ridiculously short period of time when one considers the complexity of the problem and the improbability that another opportunity for national introspection on the subject of crime will soon recur. He set the Commission the task of answering five questions so embarrassingly naïve (e.g., “Why does juvenile delinquency know no economic or educational boundaries?”) and so question-begging (e.g., “Why does organized crime continue to expand?”) that they are not even quoted in the Commission’s Report. He then appointed a membership which, with a few exceptions, was either personally or institutionally incapable of considering a fundamental question which a group concerned with serious issues of policy should have confronted: What is the criminal sanction good for? Because of the extreme political sensitivity of an inquiry that would have challenged prevalent law-enforcement dogmas, the situation called for awareness of the issues and the courage to meet them. The awareness may have been there, but if it was, the courage was lacking.

OF COURSE we need to do all the good things that this generally enlightened Report tells us we need to do. We need to recognize that the problem of crime cannot be separated from the social conditions that engender it. We need to upgrade the police. We need to make the courts at once more efficient and more fair. We need to rely less on imprisonment as a correctional device. The Report is a useful piece of public education in these and other particulars, although in many respects its concrete recommendations will seem too cautious to those who are acquainted with current thinking on such matters as police-community relations and sentencing policies.

The common fallacy in thinking about the control of crime is to divorce the question of how to deal with crime from the question of what crime is. That fallacy is perpetuated in the Report. Crime is treated as a natural fact, on a specious analogy with disease. The system of criminal …

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