Getting Used to Mugging

Serpico

by Peter Maas
Viking, 300 pp., $8.95

Robbery and the Criminal Justice System

by John E. Conklin
Lippincott, 208 pp., $5.75

The most urgent issue in American cities, we are told, is the fear of crime. Yet if this is true, writers and politicians no longer speak confidently on the subject, only reuttering common-places we already know. (The age-old recourse to draconian punishments is a case in point.) But perhaps most exasperating is the unwillingness of too many of us to follow through on the implications of our arguments. Let us suppose, for example, that we wish to have crime-free cities, or at least some approximation of that condition. The standard solutions run as follows:

(1) That we change the basic conditions which turn people into criminals: slum housing, bad schools, absent fathers, lack of employment opportunities. But the unpursued implication here is not the cost itself (anyone can conjure up a figure) but rather the extent to which the rest of us would have less money to spend and would lead quite different lives were this aim to be achieved.

(2) That the police be so omnipresent that would-be criminals would forebear from assaulting anyone, in view of the extremely high chances of getting caught. Here the undiscussed issue (over and above the cost) is the impact such expanded policing would have on everyone’s private habits and pursuits. We now have about one policeman for every 380 citizens. Do we really want a lower ratio than that?

(3) That all persons who commit crimes be caught, convicted, and imprisoned until the rest of us are assured that, upon release, they will lead law-abiding lives. Here, too, leave to one side the costs of more efficient apprehension, streamlined courts, and additional prisons. What is implied is the assumption that some young toughs had better be kept behind bars until they are at least seventy. Some people prefer to suppose that the places we call prisons will remove criminal tendencies, that there must be some correctional arrangements which will effect changes in the attitudes of inmates. Suggestions range from more highly paid and psychologically sensitive professionals to community-controlled institutions to no prisons at all. But apart from gouging out a criminal’s eyes, no one has any convincing proposals on how to prevent his reversion upon release.

Indeed no politician I have heard has a “plan” for dealing with crime, including the President of the United States, various governors, and former policemen who seek or have gained municipal office. Variations on one or another of the proposals I have just cited do not contain strategies for reducing criminality, for they shy away from specific suggestions. The fear of crime has produced more snake-oil merchants than we have seen in a long time, ranging from the domestic armaments industry to university-based rip-off artists who reroof their summer cottages with research grants. Several thousand criminals have succeeded in terrorizing several tens of millions of their fellow citizens. What are we, the public, to do? People who have had all sorts of bright ideas on everything from curing schizophrenia to bringing peace to Southeast …

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