In a revealing moment in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta, playing a small-time hood, visits a drug dealer to score some heroin. As the dealer weighs out the merchandise, he offers a terse commentary on changing drug fashions. “Coke’s fucking dead,” he announces. “Heroin is coming back in a big way.” Later, a moll played by Uma Thurman discovers a bag of white powder in Travolta’s coat and, mistaking it for cocaine, greedily snorts it. The stuff is so potent that she lapses into a coma, and Travolta must rush her to the dealer’s, where she’s revived by a shot of adrenaline plunged directly into her heart. That’s what you get for being behind the curve on drug trends.
By now, everyone has heard about the comeback of heroin. The most recent round of stories appeared last August, after the overdose death of a thirty-seven-year-old stockbroker, the mother of two young children, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The Middle Class Rediscovers Heroin,” declared The New York Times. “Although heroin’s resurgence first hit the West Coast five years ago, when it was embraced by Hollywood trendsetters and grunge musicians tired of cocaine’s manic high,” the paper reported, “the drug’s popularity has made a bold leap from the ghettos of New York to the plush Upper West Side apartments of the city’s young urban professionals.”
This was hardly the first time the Times had taken up the subject. In August 1993, for example, it ran a front-page story headlined “With Supply and Purity Up, Heroin Use Expands.” Describing a “young model” gliding through a swarm of “glassyeyed addicts” in East Harlem, the paper termed her “one of the new ones, drawn to a high grade of heroin that does not need to be pumped into the body with a hypodermic needle but can be inhaled like cocaine without the slightest damage to a finely turned nose, at least in the beginning.” In May 1994, the paper was back with a front-page story from Los Angeles headlined “Heroin Finds a New Market Along Cutting Edge of Style.” The drug, it reported, has “caught on, on both coasts, in circles whose habits often set trends—young people piloting the fast lane in the film, rock, and fashion industries.”
Joining the Times in reporting on the new craze have been, among others, Newsweek (“Heroin Makes an Ominous Comeback”), Mademoiselle (“Hooked! Why Nice Women Do the Worst Drug”), and The Village Voice, whose story on the subject made it sound as if virtually every writer, musician, and photographer south of 14th Street is doing the drug. In May 1993, the New York Daily News ran a four-part “special report” on “The Comeback of Heroin,” while New York Newsday in December 1990 featured a cover on “The Middle Class’ New Kick: Heroin.”
For five years now the press has been discovering a new trend that may not be so new. Perhaps it’s not even a trend, outside the nightclubs of Hollywood and the bars of the East Village. Many of the stories depend on slender bits of evidence—the death of one person, the comments of a single expert. The Times’s August 1995 article noted that “in the last two weeks alone, eight people have showed up for treatment at the Metropolitan Hospital Center on the Upper East Side after overdosing on heroin….” In fact, Metropolitan Hospital is located on East 97th Street, in East Harlem, and most of its patients come from that poor neighborhood.
This is not to deny that heroin consumption is up. According to government figures, heroin-related visits to hospital emergency rooms increased 66 percent between 1988 and 1993. In New York, heroin samples seized on the street are averaging about 65 percent in purity—about double the level of a few years ago. This has made it possible to get high by snorting the drug rather than injecting it, and that, in turn, has increased its appeal for some middle-class Americans. Heroin is not a trivial matter; even sniffing can lead to addiction, and already treatment counselors in New York report seeing more well-to-do users. Still, these users have received attention out of all proportion to their number. As has been the case since the mid-1960s, heroin use remains heaviest among poor blacks and Latinos. Today the most common form of ingestion is speedballing, in which heroin is taken together with cocaine, usually by injection—a practice not for the faint-hearted.
“Middle-class heroin use seems to be exaggerated,” I was told by Richard Chady, a spokesman for the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. “That seems the peg that interests most news organizations. It’s picked up every once in a while, usually when there’s a sensational case—for instance, that of the stockbroker. The favorite headline is ‘Smack Is Back’—as if it ever went away.”
Not long ago I had a telephone call from an ABC producer who was working on a program about the resurgence of heroin. “We’re trying to get some middle-class users—people who are sniffing, rather than injecting,” she said, asking for some leads. I said that while middle-class use somewhat increased, most of the new consumption was occurring among inner-city minorities. “Oh, they’ve been around for years,” she said. “The fact that heroin is spreading into other sectors is what people will sit up and listen to.”
The press’s indifference to inner-city drug addiction is unfortunate, for that problem underlies so much else that goes on in the nation’s cities. Only by understanding changes in hard-core drug use among the poor is it possible to make sense of the startling changes now taking place in urban America.
The most notable is the sudden drop in crime rates. After moving steadily upward for years, those rates are now moving as steadily downward. In 1994, the nation’s crime rate dropped two percent, the third consecutive year of decline. Some of the sharpest dips have occurred in the country’s largest cities. In the first six months of 1995, for instance, the homicide rate dropped 9.1 percent in Detroit (compared to the same period in 1994), 10.3 percent in Washington, 11.9 percent in Boston, 17.7 percent in New Orleans, 18.4 percent in Atlanta, 18.8 percent in Chicago, and 32 percent in Houston.
Nowhere has the overall decline been steeper than in New York City, where the crime rate fell 11.7 percent in 1994 and another 18.3 percent in the first six months of 1995. From January 1994, when Rudolph Giuliani became mayor, through June 1995, homicides were down 37.3 percent, robbery was down 31.3 percent, and burglary was down 23.6 percent, helping to reduce the incidence of crime in New York to its lowest level in twenty-five years.
Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton have sought credit for the decline, and the press has generally been willing to grant it. “The End of Crime As We Know It,” New York magazine declared on its cover last August. According to the article, by Craig Horowitz, Giuliani and Bratton had not only made New York safer but also resolved the long-simmering debate over the best way to fight crime in America:
Their victory appears to be a repudiation of three decades of received wisdom that crime is inextricably connected to economic deprivation and social injustice. Bratton and Giuliani are showing it is possible to keep a lid on crime solely through effective law enforcement…. “There has never been a proven connection between the state of the economy and crime,” the mayor said—in a different time and place, this would be sheer apostasy—“and there is absolutely no correlation between unemployment and crime. Go look at the Depression. It was one of the safest periods in the history of this country.” Giuliani and Bratton believe they have happened on something big. They have found the real root cause of crime: criminals.
Its fawning tone aside, the New York article raises an issue central to the recent crime drop. Have conservatives, with their insistent calls for more arrests, swifter prosecutions, and harsher penalties, been right all along?
One must give Giuliani and Bratton their due. Clearly the change in crime rates is not a statistical fluke, and, while crime remains an ever-present concern, many New Yorkers have a palpable sense that the city (its poor neighborhoods included) is getting safer. More police are patrolling New York’s streets today than ever before. Cracking down on previously ignored offenses, they have issued summonses for such practices as loitering and drinking beer in public. Checking the records of these offenders, the police have been able to identify those with outstanding arrest warrants and to take them into custody. By more thoroughly frisking the people they stop on the street, the police have picked up many young men carrying concealed guns. And, through diligent investigation, they have succeeded in busting many drug gangs. The NYPD has also adopted a computer-based management system that allows it to track local crime patterns and plot ways to counter them.
That such actions have had an effect is widely acknowledged by those in the best position to judge—the city’s hustlers and drug sellers. “It’s been tough the last year and a half,” I was told by a forty-year-old heroin user in Harlem, one of many addicts I’ve interviewed in the city in recent weeks. “Everybody’s hollering, ‘Giuliani, Giuliani.’ ” Wearing a Champion sweatshirt and a gold earring in his left ear, with dreadlocks poking out from the back of his otherwise shaven head, the man was expert in analyzing the changing tactics of the police department. “The merger between the housing police and the city police was one factor—there’s much better coordination now,” he said. “And before, you only had to worry about getting arrested by undercover cops. Now, you worry about the uniformed guys, too. That made a hell of a difference.”
“You have to be more careful,” a Latino heroin user told me. “The police come up real quick. Everybody says it’s Giuliani.” Because he had an outstanding warrant, the man said, he had to be more cautious now. “If they catch me,” he said, “I’ll do thirty days.”
Virtually every person I’ve spoken with tells a similar story: Giuliani has turned up the heat, which has meant greater caution on the street, fewer drugs, and less crime. All of which would seem to support the view that the best way to reduce crime is to crack down on criminals.
Before law-and-order advocates declare victory, however, they should consider some inconvenient facts. First, the falloff in crime in New York started before Giuliani took office. The crime rate dropped 7.8 percent in 1992 and another 4 percent in 1993, when David Dinkins was mayor. During the 1993 mayoral campaign, Giuliani did a good job of obscuring this fact—a decisive factor in his narrow victory. Even more significant is the fact that so many other cities are experiencing similar drops, which suggests the existence of broader forces at work throughout the nation.
Two are particularly salient, I think. One is an apparent decline in the use of crack. Every six months, drug epidemiologists from around the country gather to compare developments in their local communities; their recent reports indicate that crack use—while still high—has leveled off in some cities and begun to subside in others. In 1994, for instance, the number of cocaine-related deaths and of babies born addicted to cocaine was down in several cities. In the inner city, most young people—disdaining crackheads and their self-destructive activities—emphatically shun crack and cocaine use. In Manhattan, the percentage of young people who test positive for cocaine after they are arrested has dropped from 69 percent in 1987 to 17 percent in 1993. According to an article in August 1994 by researchers Andrew Golub and Bruce Johnson in the American Journal of Public Health, “The finding that high-risk, inner-city youths reaching age eighteen in the 1990s were dramatically less likely to initiate regular use of cocaine suggests that the cocaine and crack epidemics are ebbing.”
My own interviews on the street tend to confirm this. “Few of the young people are into crack,” said an older Latino man who was missing many of his teeth. “Most are into herb.” Smoking marijuana and drinking fortyounce bottles of cheap malt liquor are the fashion among today’s inner-city teens. (This is one of the few things the movie Kids got right.) Many young blacks and Latinos remain involved in selling crack but they cater to a market made up largely of adults. Those adults remain a grave problem. During 1994, in fact, visits to hospital emergency rooms by people using crack or cocaine increased 15 percent over the previous year, reaching the highest level on record. While the total number of crack users is declining, those who remain addicted are experiencing more acute symptoms than ever. (In a sign of their desperation, some addicts—unable to afford the glass stems normally used to smoke crack—are using broken-off car antennae.) With fewer crack addicts around, the irrational behavior commonly associated with them seems to be declining as well. It was in 1985, when crack first hit, that violent crime began rising sharply in the United States. Now that crack use is falling, the violent crime rate is falling too.
The other major trend is the vast expansion in the nation’s prison system. In 1980, the year before Reagan took office, the nation’s prison and jail population stood at about 500,000. By 1994, it had reached nearly 1.5 million. Another 2.8 million were on probation and 671,000 on parole, meaning that nearly 5 million Americans were under some form of criminal supervision. This is clearly having an effect. As a Harlem hustler told me, “Everybody’s in the system. Either you’re in jail, on parole, on probation, or on the run” (as he was). “If you’re on the run, you have to do things differently. You can’t get arrested again. You avoid confrontation with any form of authority.” The old debate over the ability of sanctions to deter criminals seems obsolete; with so many people now in prison, it’s their sheer removal from the streets that’s making the difference.
On one level, then, the policy of mass incarceration seems to be working. The question is, at what price? The financial burden of arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning this population is enormous. Facing a tripling in its inmate population, for example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has increased its budget from $330 million in 1980 to $2.6 billion in 1995, an increase of nearly 700 percent. In California, where seventeen new prisons have been built in the last fifteen years, spending on corrections now absorbs 9.9 percent of the state budget, up from 2 percent in 1980.
The social costs are equally great. In October, the Sentencing Project, which is based in Washington, released a report (“Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System”) showing that one in every three black males between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine is in some way under the control of the criminal justice system—up from one in four just five years earlier. According to the report, the main cause of the increase was the nation’s drug policies; between 1983 and 1993, the number of drug offenders sentenced to prison increased fivefold. For the most part, these offenders are low-level, nonviolent sellers (many of them users) who have been scooped up in the continual drug raids favored by the police and who have been sentenced under the harsh penalties on the books in every state. The draconian federal penalties for selling crack—a mandatory minimum of five years for five grams—have helped fill the nation’s pens with petty drug violators. (The penalties for selling cocaine powder, which is preferred by middle-class users, are much less severe.)
The Sentencing Project’s report was greeted with much hand-wringing. The Times, for instance, editorialized that the document “should set off alarm bells from the White House to city halls—and help reverse the notion that we can incarcerate our way out of fundamental social problems.” Less than three months earlier, however, the paper had congratulated the police department for the “astonishing decline” in the city’s crime rate, commending it for cracking down on drug dealers, making more arrests, and getting more convictions—all of which had increased the number of black men in prison.
We can’t have it both ways. Our cities have succeeded in bringing down their crime rates, but only by locking away a dismayingly high proportion of blacks, often for crimes that involve no violent behavior whatever.
Is there another way? Growing disillusionment with the mass-confinement policies of the last fifteen years has prompted many journalists and academics to try to observe inner-city hustlers and dealers firsthand. Though approaching the subject from different angles, they have arrived at remarkably similar conclusions. In Land of Opportunity: One Family’s Quest for the American Dream in the Age of Crack, William M. Adler traces the fortunes of two black brothers, Billy Joe and Larry Chambers, who rose from a backwater town in the Arkansas Delta to run the largest crack operation in Detroit. In personality, the brothers could not be more different: the bantam-sized Billy Joe is a rambunctious lover of girls, Cadillacs, and parties, while Larry is a stern vegetarian, yoga practitioner, and voracious reader, who “was unfailingly polite, even as he readied to commit violence,” which was often. While Billy Joe contented himself with running a half-dozen crack houses, Larry took over an entire apartment building and turned it into a “state-of-the-art crack empire,” with fliers advertising his drugs, quality-control procedures, and a job hotline. The brothers, Adler writes, became “something like folk heroes—the Lee Iacoccas of the crack business—for street kids and even for some adults.”
What distinguishes Adler’s book from most other reports of the crack world is his richly detailed account of the background of the Chambers brothers and their twisted entrepreneurship. Arkansas’s Lee County, where the boys grew up, was the sixth-poorest county in the nation. Nearly half of its black children were described in official surveys as malnourished or undernourished, and only one in five black adults had graduated from high school. By the early 1980s, blue-collar work had all but disappeared from the region, and racial prejudice was so strong that black adults were still afraid to register to vote. So, like countless young people before them, the Chambers brothers headed north.
The situation there was no less bleak. On Detroit’s Lower East Side, where they lived, life had once centered on “Old Jeff,” the Chrysler assembly plant on Jefferson Avenue. But the company had been forced to slash its workforce during the recession of the late 1970s, and by 1982 more than half the city’s young blacks were unemployed. Crack, when it spread, supplied the job opportunities once provided by the auto industry. By one estimate, 150 youths from Lee County traveled to Detroit to work for the Chambers brothers.
Most, unfortunately, ended up addicted, imprisoned, or dead. The Chambers brothers themselves were arrested after a lengthy investigation by the police and the DEA, and they soon joined the quickly growing numbers of prisoners. Adler does not sentimentalize the brothers; as criminals, he writes, they “must be held accountable for their actions.” At the same time, he observes that, for many young people, crack distribution was “a rational career choice,” a reaction to “the devastating consequences for inner-city residents of the Reagan-Bush era’s domestic spending policies, and to the collapse of opportunity during the 1980s for those at the bottom of the economic heap—especially poor blacks.” More than any other book I know of, Land of Opportunity explains how crack took hold of the nation’s ghettos, urban and rural.
To explore crack’s effects on one particular ghetto, Philippe Bourgois, an associate professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University, lived for three and a half years in a run-down tenement in East Harlem. Spending his days on the street and in crack houses, Bourgois became friendly with two dozen sellers and users, most of them Puerto Ricans. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio offers one of the most closely observed accounts we are likely to get of the urban crack scene. It is not an attractive world, and Bourgois—hearing stories of gang rape as an accepted rite of adolescent passage, seeing mothers casually pushing strollers into crack houses, and witnessing the calculated use of violence as an accepted business practice—does not hesitate to express his disgust.
At the same time, Bourgois seeks to understand the sources of such behavior and, while his book frequently gets bogged down in political jargon, it provides a fascinating account of the obstacles crack sellers face as they seek to earn a living. Contrary to what we have often been led to expect, most of the dealers he meets have had extensive experience with legitimate jobs. With factory work scarce and construction work reserved mostly for whites, Bourgois’s subjects have had to settle for entry-level jobs in New York’s finance, real estate, and insurance industries. For ambitious innercity youths, positions as mailroom clerks, photocopiers, and messengers offer the best chances for upward mobility. Yet the cultural codes of such white-collar jobs conflict sharply with the norms of personal dignity that prevail on the street, with unhappy consequences.
Primo, one of Bourgois’s main characters, is a bright, energetic high-school dropout who frequently talks of his desire for steady work. But when he lands a job at a trade-magazine publishing house, he runs afoul of his female boss. Required to work extra hours on a direct-mail campaign, he demands overtime, not realizing that in doing so he is hurting his chances for a promotion. When his boss asks him to come to her apartment to help with a last-minute mailing, Primo is offended; in El Barrio, an unmarried woman never invites a man to her house. At work, Primo tries to dress nicely, but, to his fellow employees, he succeeds only in looking like a hood. Not surprisingly, when his company is forced to retrench, he is the first to be let go. Gradually feeling locked out of the legal labor market, Primo takes refuge in the ranks of the “discouraged workers” who, because they have given up looking for work, are no longer considered unemployed in national surveys.
“My job searches have been fucked up,” he tells Bourgois. “I didn’t get hired nowhere. Not even as a porter at Woolworth’s for four-forty an hour. Four dollars is wack and that’s a union job. So I don’t think I’ll find a job in a while, because I don’t want to work for minimum wage. And I really won’t honestly take a five-dollars-an-hour job either, and they won’t give me one anyhow.”
And so Primo ends up back on the street, selling crack and increasing his own use of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. Of him and his co-workers, Bourgois writes, “Their poverty remains their only constant as they alternate between street-level crack dealing and just-above-minimum-wage legal employment.” The drug problem has become so virulent in recent years, he argues, because “the economic base of the traditional working class has eroded throughout the country.” Therefore, any realistic attempt to address that problem must “alter the economic imbalance between the rewards of the legal economy versus those of the underground economy.”
Malcolm W. Klein, the director of the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Southern California, has arrived at a similar conclusion. A student of street gangs for more than three decades, Klein wrote The American Street Gang after becoming disgusted with what he calls the “media/enforcement hyping” of American street gangs. In Klein’s view, the DEA, the FBI, and, especially, the Los Angeles Police Department have all exaggerated the extent to which street gangs like the Bloods and Crips have been responsible for the spread of crack throughout the US. This “conspiracy orientation,” he writes, has given rise to a small industry dedicated to monitoring, tracking, and smashing street gangs. Every month, for instance, the California Gang Investigators’ Association meets to share notes on the latest “gang predations” while teams of gang experts from Los Angeles and Chicago fly across the country to give seminars on how to break the gang-crack connection.
Conducting his own survey of cities with gang activity, Klein found that only 14 percent of them reported a strong link between gang membership and drug selling. Most street gangs, he found, are too loosely organized and poorly disciplined to run successful crack operations. As a result, he writes, “the justification for broad national or state policy based on the gang-drug connection is all but nil at this point. Only ideology requires such a policy.”
Not that Klein sees the gangs as benign. He gloomily describes their rapid growth from 1970, when about 100 cities reported the presence of gangs, to today, when more than 800 do. This growth does not derive from particular gangs spreading from city to city, however, but from local reactions to economic and social decline. Street gangs, Klein writes, “are telling us that the cores of our towns and cities, and increasing components of our suburbs as well, are deteriorating.” Quasimilitary tactics of the sort favored by the LAPD, such as the mass roundup of gang members, “serve only to increase gang cohesiveness,” Klein writes. Only by building up the inner cities through heavy investments in jobs, schools, and social services, he adds, can we hope to discourage the growth of street gangs.
In view of the budget-cutting fever in Washington and in many state capitals, such prescriptions might seem utopian. A more hard-headed approach is to be found in Beggars and Thieves, a study of urban street criminals by Mark S. Fleisher. An anthropologist and associate professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, Fleisher is one of the rare ethnographers who have come to loathe their subjects—in this case, the drug dealers, panhandlers, and gang members he met while hanging out on the streets of Seattle. In contrast with Bourgois’s crack sellers, many of whom wanted regular jobs, Fleisher’s hustlers seem interested only in making a fast buck. His main informant, a con man and drug peddler named Popcorn, tells him, “I’d rather do nothin’ than work for two bucks an hour turnin’ them fuckin’ hamburgers or sweeping some fuckin’ flo’s. After completing a drug treatment program, Popcorn immediately returns to his thieving and drug selling (though he stops using drugs himself). “In years of listening to natural conversations in jails, prison cellblocks, and on city streets,” Fleisher claims, “I never heard hustlers talk about a desire to become lawful citizens or to work a lawful job.” Fleisher asserts that his subjects lacked “personal responsibility.” Since street criminals “choose to be outlaws,” he writes, they “must be held accountable for their behavior….”
From this, one would expect Fleisher to endorse the recent trend toward building more and more prisons. He doesn’t. Apart from the violent criminals who deserve to be there, he writes, prisons have become dumping grounds for small-time dealers and thieves. “The drug dealers I hung with for years didn’t hurt anyone,” Fleisher writes. By releasing them, “we can gain thousands of prison beds” for violent offenders. Fleisher would instead place low-level offenders in “minimum-security community work camps,” assigning them to repair highways, clean vacant lots, and carry out urban renewal projects.
To see how distorted our spending priorities have become Fleisher recommends a visit to a modern prison:
Eat with inmates in the dining hall. Attend education classes. Visit the law library. Watch vocational training, barbering or computer science, for instance. Hang around the gymnasium and big yard during recreation. Listen to the inmates playing basketball, lifting weights, shooting pool. Enjoy the manicured lawns and flower beds. Ask someone about the weekend movie.
After this, Fleisher writes, readers should “spend a few days in an American ghetto, places like those where my informants grew up.”
Walk around apartment buildings. Check for garbage in the halls, look for vermin. How warm are apartments in December? Is there running water?… Spend time in the local public hospital. Share a meal with residents, or eat at the community kitchen or a local mission or shelter. Talk to residents about the quality of their lives. Watch mothers send children off to school. Get off the street before dark. Listen for gunfire. Watch out for gangs. Look at gang graffiti on the walls.
In short, Fleisher argues, poor Americans seeking remedial education, vocational training, drug counseling, and medical care must often go to prison or jail to get it. To prevent crime, Fleisher writes, we must establish such programs “in places where the neediest people can [gain] access [to] them, before they become delinquents, gang bangers, and prison inmates.”
Fleisher’s description of a “modern prison” is much too rosy; rape, gang warfare, and squalid conditions remain common in many penitentiaries, and he doesn’t mention the revival of the chain gang in Alabama. But full-service prisons juxtaposed with rodent-infested housing projects seems an apt metaphor for what is going on in the country. Everywhere, the criminal justice system is expanding while other services are being slashed. In New York State, for instance, spending on prisons has skyrocketed from $837 million in 1985 to $1.9 billion in 1994, an increase of 127 percent; by contrast, the number of drug treatment slots, after increasing by about 50 percent, has remained flat since 1992 despite crushing demand. In New York City, the NYPD has been indulged like a spoiled child; according to the Mayor’s Management Report, Giuliani in 1995 increased the department’s budget by 12 percent, to $2.06 billion, and in 1996 it’s due to rise another 9 percent. Meanwhile the number of sanitation workers is being cut, municipal hospitals are being shrunk, child welfare workers are being urged to close cases, and the education system is virtually bankrupt. While the city’s crime rate is dropping, the number of children per classroom is rising.
Such a tradeoff is a natural outgrowth of Mayor Giuliani’s political convictions. Because he believes crime bears no relation to economic deprivation, he remains confident that the current cuts in social services will have no long-term effects. Recent history does not support such optimism, however. During the last thirty years, the city has gone through several crime cycles, with bursts of high crime alternating with periods of relative tranquility. From 1979 to 1981, for instance, the city had one of its most violent periods ever, with the overall crime rate shooting up 27.2 percent and the murder rate, 21.5 percent. In 1982, the overall rate began to subside, and it remained low through 1985, leading some experts to declare that the problem had been solved. Then crack became popular, stimulating another spasm of violence and bloodshed that is just now exhausting itself. Have we reached the “end of crime as we know it,” or just another lull before another storm?
On the street, the word is not encouraging. Recently, there are signs that the drug trade is on the rebound. “Rudy did all he could to clean it up,” the man in the Champion sweatshirt told me. “But the demand’s still there, and the dealers are going to be back in business. They’re already beginning to come back. Before, you couldn’t get anything, but now there are four or five different brands being sold just around here.” As he talked, he nodded in the direction of several addicts who were anxiously waiting for their suppliers to appear. Others expressed concern over the cutbacks in social services. “Crime is going to go up,” a middle-aged black man predicted. “They’re hounding people off welfare. Those people are not going to starve. They’ll steal.”
The central question, as usual, is what will happen to the city’s poor young people. Most teenagers, as I have said, have stayed off hard drugs. That could change quickly, however, if they continue to feel they are denied decent opportunities. “These youths are at extremely high risk,” says Bruce Johnson of National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., who has been studying the New York drug world for years. “They’ve grown up in extremely disorganized households. They’ve never had a job. They have no skills to get legal employment. And there are no jobs for them even if they did have skills. Most can’t even get jobs flipping burgers. McDonald’s now has standards that most inner-city kids can’t meet.” As they hang out on the street, feeling cold and bored, many of these kids may prove unable to resist the temptation to use or sell some heroin or cocaine. The result could be a new drug epidemic, and that, in turn, could ignite another upturn in the cycle of violence. Already, crime statistics show, the violent crime rate, while dropping nationally, has been rising among young people, and the overall number of teen-agers is about to climb rapidly.
A consensus is building among criminologists, penologists, judges, sociologists, and other students of crime that the policy of mass incarceration has been a disaster—for the criminal justice system, which has let out violent offenders in order to make room for less violent ones, and for states and cities, which have had to devote more and more resources to keeping people locked up. And it has been a disaster as well for the black community, which has seen so many of its fathers, husbands, and sons put away. Politicians of both parties have failed to see this. In October, Congress voted to reject a recommendation from the US Sentencing Commission—hardly a liberal body—that it ease the harsh federal penalties on crack offenses. The White House has been no more enlightened. Determined to look tough on crime, President Clinton has adamantly opposed any relaxation in drug sanctions. During the 1996 campaign he will no doubt claim credit for the decline in national crime rates, and there is unlikely to be much disagreement between him and the Republicans on the issue.
As feckless as anyone else, perhaps, have been some of the people who decide what appears in the press and on television. We are continually being bombarded by violent images—on the local TV news, with its insatiable appetite for crime stories; in the tabloid press, with its lurid and inflammatory headlines; on prime-time television, where shows like NYPD Blue and Law and Order suggest that the world is crawling with “perps”; and in the steady stream of action movies from Hollywood, in which the incessant shootings, stabbings, and assaults all magnify the sense that America is teeming with drug hustlers and hoodlums. Whatever impact such images may have on people’s behavior, they serve to reinforce the idea that only by building more prisons and hiring more police can we keep the forces of violence and anarchy at bay.
February 1, 1996