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Barry Latzer discussed his controversial book The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America (just out in paperback) with our own Ben Weingarten. What follows is a full transcript of their discussion from 2016, slightly modified for clarity.
You can also listen to their interview in its entirety below. And to instantly receive Encounter Books Podcast interviews like these upon publication, be sure to subscribe.
Ben Weingarten: Professor Latzer, one of the recurring themes that I noticed in your book — and it rekindled in my mind some of the works of Charles Murray and Thomas Sowell, like Black Rednecks and White Liberals — is the idea that your book comprehensively studies violent crime from the ’30s and ’40s through today. And you break down crime based upon every single demographic measure that there is, and look at the causes and results as studied by many sociologists and criminologists and the like. Naturally, you delve into, among other things, the correlation between race and crime rates. Being that you’re in academia, how much is the study of these kinds of facts and figures precluded in your industry because of the stigma around just the sheer notion of looking at facts and figures that might touch a third rail?
Barry Latzer: Ben, you’ve already hit on a huge problem. No one wants to talk about the sensitive issue of African-Americans and crime, even though everyone knows that it’s an important topic. In fact, this book couldn’t be published because a publisher, a well-known scholarly publisher in the Northeast [U.S.], actually reneged on the contract. Members of the faculty looked at the manuscript and decided I was saying the wrong thing about this sensitive issue. They actually tore up my contract. I don’t think I need to add anything beyond that. I guess that delivers the message.
Ben Weingarten: For those looking at the situations in Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson, as well as other inner city areas of late, what context do you feel that your book provides from a historical and an academic perspective?
Barry Latzer: Well, we can’t jump off the deep end here just because we had one year’s rise in some cities in violent crime. We need to look at the longer-term trends. And what my book does is, it shows how and why crime rose in the late 1960s, which was, of course, one of the biggest rises in violent crime in American history. And when we look at the factors that influence that crime rise, we will naturally ask ourselves, “Well, are those same factors now being replicated in the current period?” And if not, are we nevertheless threatened with the rise in violent crime? So it gives us some historical perspective on why crime rises, why crime falls, and then, of course, we try to apply these understandings to the current day situation.
Violent crime is a young man's game
Ben Weingarten: Your book starts really in the ’30s and ’40s, and you do an interesting survey of the history and then the correlation between wars, and the ending of wars, and the movements up and down in violent crime, both in America and elsewhere. What should listeners know about that correlation?
Barry Latzer: Wars are not consistently related to violent crime, it’s quite interesting. What does reduce violent crime is when you have a major conscription of young men, because young men do so much more violent crime than any other group. If they’re taken into the armed services, then that usually means a drop in crime. On the other hand, during World War II, Ben, the migration of Americans to cities where they were building war material, to coastal cities where they were creating fleets of naval ships, and simply all over America to military bases — that had the opposite effect on crime, because many cities weren’t prepared for the influx of people. And therefore, you did have more conflicts, more robberies, more crime. So they were contradictory effects of the war, but overall, the draft and the conscription must have had a bigger impact because crime kept going down during the ’40s.
Ben Weingarten: And you referenced a little bit the tie between age and crime. That’s another big theme in your book. What is the relationship between age and crime?
Barry Latzer: Absolutely. The demographic factor, the “baby boom bulge,” as we might call it, was very significant in the rise in crime in the late 1960s. What happened is, after young men came back from the Second World War, they wanted to have families, and because the economy was booming, they were able to do so. And when their children — the so-called “baby boom generation,” grew up to the age of 18 to 25 or so, which took place in the late 1960s — that’s when we got this tremendous demographic bulge in young males. And that contributed mightily to the rise in violent crime because violent crime is a young man’s game, and that’s precisely what happened in the late ’60s.
Ben Weingarten: Now, when you’re talking about the relative tranquility of the ’50s that was basically unprecedented in the 20th century, as you write, and then the move into the ’60s and the late ’60s when crime starts to spike at almost an exponential growth rate, you mentioned a really interesting theory that I hadn’t come across. I wonder if you could tell our listeners a little bit about it. And that’s this idea of an inversely proportional relationship between homicide rates on the one hand, and suicide rates on the other hand. Speak a little bit to that.
There doesn't seem to be a consistent relationship between general economic conditions and rises or falls in crime
Barry Latzer: This is very interesting, and I didn’t know about it myself until I had done the research for this book. But it seems that some groups of people who have very high suicide rates have low homicide rates. And the opposite also seems to be true, so that if they have high homicide rates, they have low suicide rates. In the ’50s, there were studies done, and they pointed to African-American rates, which seemed to prove the hypothesis. That is, African-Americans had fairly high homicide rates, and seemingly low suicide rates. But it turned out that subsequent research threw some cold water on this because subsequent research found that if you look at young African-Americans, you’ll see both high suicide and high homicide rates. So this is not consistent with the theory, and it seemed to blow the theory out of the water.
I should add that the first time this hypothesis was ventured was by Emile Durkheim, the famous sociologist, the French sociologist who was writing in the 19th century, and he was talking about the different European countries. And he noted that in some countries, homicide and suicide had this inverse relationship. So I think the latest work that showed problems with the understanding with respect to African-Americans because of a failure to look at the differences in the different age categories — I think that raises some doubts about the theory.
Ben Weingarten: In the post-Depression era through the early ’60s, you note that among black Americans, there are great gains — and this is corroborated by the works of [Thomas] Sowell and others — both in terms of increases in socioeconomic standing, in literacy and education, and a movement into the middle-class of a disproportionate percentage of black Americans relative to the prior period. But at the same time, you note that there is a relative skyrocketing in the black crime rate, while all these other indicators would seem to suggest that you would imagine crime would be falling or stagnant at worst. How do you explain that?
Barry Latzer: Right. Quite surprising. And in fact, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent relationship between general economic conditions and rises or falls in crime. Sometimes you have recessions, or even the Great Depression, and crime will both rise and fall, at different times of course. So it doesn’t seem to be a consistent relationship there. In fact, there’s even another factor with African-Americans because, remember, by the late ’60s, we already had the great civil rights legislation approved — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So, there’s been tremendous economic and social progress for African-Americans, the economy, in general is booming, and yet we have this enormous increase in African-American violent crime. Why is this the case then?
It seems that the African-American population, at least at the poorer levels, at the low socioeconomic strata, always had very high rates of interpersonal violence in the South when they lived in the South overwhelmingly, which was prior to the World Wars. And these rates of interpersonal violence became part of the culture of low socioeconomic status African-Americans. And when they migrated North to the big cities, this culture of interpersonal violence migrated with them. Moreover, there were real temptations to engage in robbery up North, where people had more money, more valuables, and carried them around with them, and where African-Americans felt freer to move about, by contrast with the Jim Crow South. So this really encourages African-Americans to engage in a great deal of violence in the cities of the North.
Now, one other point related to this: That baby boom that we spoke about earlier also affects the African-American population. They too had an enormous baby boom. They too had an enormous increase in the young male demographic. So all of these factors together — the migration, the tradition, if you will, of high interpersonal violence, the robbery temptations, the baby boom, in this case you might call it the “black baby boom bulge” — all of these factors together seem to contribute to soaring rates of African-American crime. Some people would add one other thing, Ben, and they would say, well, also [the rates might be attributable to] the disorders of the period, the civil rights protests, the race riots, the Vietnam War protests…[which] created a milieu, an environment, in which this kind of violent behavior could thrive. I’m not as convinced of this simply because I’m not sure that people in the low socioeconomic categories are as impacted by these kinds of middle-class protests and demonstrations. They would’ve been impacted, of course, by the riots in the streets, because that’s where people in the low socioeconomic status categories did participate. But I think the main factors were the ones I had described to you just a minute ago.
Ben Weingarten: So, we leave the ’50s and early ’60s, and then all of a sudden, there is a massive spike in crime across all groups — violent crime across all groups specifically — from the ’60s through ’80s, and then even bleeding into the early ’90s. What fundamentally changed between these two periods?
What happened in the early '80s is that crime began to decline. Why? Because the baby boomers were growing too old for violence
Barry Latzer: In the late ’60s, when crime started to escalate dramatically, the criminal justice system really collapsed. It was unable to deal with the sudden and massive influx. And no one anticipated that we’d have a crime rise like this. Just to give you a figure, which I happen to have at hand, in 1965, if you took 1,000 people arrested for serious crimes, you’d find that 261 of them would end up being committed to prisons for their offense. Now, that’s 261 for 1,000 arrests. In 1970, just five years later, only 170 of 1,000 would be committed to prison. So, while crime is rising, fewer people are going to prison. In fact, fewer people were being arrested, and when we look at the time served in prison for different crimes, we find that declined as well. So essentially the system caved. The criminal justice system buckled under the strain.
And the result? Of course, you got even more crime, because there were more incentives to do crimes, since there was less likelihood of being caught and punished. So, the baby boom, the black migration, and the failure of the system to cope with the massive increase all contributed to this really multi-decade spike…it lasted almost 25 years. I have an exception to that, which we might discuss in a moment or two, but this massive rise in violent crime was undoubtedly the biggest in the 20th century, and maybe in all of American history.
Ben Weingarten: So, that naturally leads to the question: What was it that ultimately dampened and then dramatically reversed this trend? Now, we should say that you document in great detail the rise of heroin drug use, alcoholism, and the cocaine binge of the ’80s, but other than those factors, what are the big influencers that caused this dramatic decline in violent crime in America?
Barry Latzer: When crime started to go down, it was certainly dramatic. But let’s not forget, this was after about 25 years of high rates of violence, which really dramatically changed Americans’ everyday behaviors. I can recall quite well you simply didn’t park your car in certain places, you were careful when you walked about a big city, you were careful when you took public transportation. People were wary. People were scared. And this goes on for two-and-a-half decades. What happened in the early ’80s is that crime began to decline. Why? Because the baby boomers were growing too old for violence. We call it in criminological terms “aging out.” As I said earlier, crime is a young man’s game, and these young men were now moving into middle age, and they were getting less involved in violence. So, crime starts edging down, Ben, in the early ’80s. Why didn’t it continue? Answer: Because by the late ’80s, we have a new youth fad, a new what we call “contagion,” and that’s cocaine. And cocaine ruins everything and ruins the people who use it as well. So, there’s this enormous spike in cocaine use, and this drives violent crime right back up again in the late ’80s and the early ’90s.
What happened though was, the criminal justice system, this time, had been hardened. Unlike in the late ’60s, when it was caught flat-footed, this time the system was really tough, and started arresting more people, putting more people in prison and giving out longer prison sentences. So the system had toughened up, and this had an impact on these youth, but also the youth, after a while, began to realize themselves that cocaine was totally self-destructive for them. It led to addictions. It led to mental and physical ailments. It led to death due to overdoses, or maybe shootings from the gangs that were warring over the cocaine turf. So it was totally self-destructive, and the recognition of that, along with the pressures from the hardened criminal justice system, led to a very sudden and dramatic end to the cocaine scourge. And that happened in ’93 and ’94. By this point, the boomers had pretty well aged out, the cocaine scourge was over, the system was tougher now, and the crime decline was on. So, we can date it from 1993, 1994 and onward, and that is the big crime trough that we’re still in now.
Ben Weingarten: You address these two causes in your book, but just to expound upon them a little more: To what degree do you attribute the decline after the early ’90s in crime to, first, an increase in the size of police forces, as well as a change in police force tactics, and then the idea that more people who were violent or might have become violent down the road were locked up and in prison, thus making the streets were safer?
Barry Latzer: Yeah. You’re exactly right on both counts, Ben. Police size was increased. President Clinton promised 100,000 more cops. Congress didn’t pay for all of that, but they did add thousands of police. That definitely helped law enforcement deal with crime. Their tactics improved as well. COMPSTAT famously made the police more efficient commanders, who were held responsible for the crime in their precincts. And that crime was measured electronically, and then they could be held accountable for rises and falls almost instantly. So policing got smarter, and the police administrators, like Bill Bratton, really applied these smarter tactics to policing, and all of this certainly helped.
Now, I view the policing role as part of the context of the hardened criminal justice system because if you have police doing more arrests, and you don’t have capacity in prisons, or you don’t have judges willing to give sentences or legislatures willing to impose tougher sentencing, well, that doesn’t do much good because then, of course, the courts will have to release the people who were arrested. So, all the parts of the system have to be toughened, and, in fact, they were. And the combination of the toughened system, and, as I said, the cocaine use decline, that really did the trick for us. And that set us on the right path for crime reduction.
...The criminal justice system, this time, had been hardened. Unlike in the late '60s, when it was caught flat-footed, this time the system was really tough, and started arresting more people, putting more people in prison and giving out longer prison sentences
Ben Weingarten: When you were doing the research for this book and compiling copious amounts of data on all things violent crime in America, what was the one single-most startling fact or figure that you came across?
Barry Latzer: I guess the most startling to me was the lack of a consistent relationship between economics and violent crime. When I was a young professor, when I was studying these matters, we were always told that there is this huge relationship between poverty and crime, between economics and crime. And I sort of accepted this, like everybody else. When I did this book, I learned that the issue is more complicated than we thought. First off, as I said earlier, general economic conditions and violent crime are not consistently related. Example: The Great Depression in the early 1930s, Ben, crime soared; after 1934, with the Depression still on and people widely impoverished by it, crime begins to go down, and keeps going down for the remainder of the ’30s decade. Second example: 1960s, biggest crime boom in our history, and the economy is great. Unemployment is under 4%. There’s no inflation. The economy is fizzing. And violent crime soars. Third example, and this one everyone’s going to remember: 2007-2008, the Great Recession, and what happens? Crime continues to fall. So there is no consistent relationship between general economic conditions and violent crime.
So then I ask, “Well, why would that be? Why should that be?” That’s contrary to everything we learn, especially since it is true that poor people tend to do much more violent crime than more affluent people. If you increase the number or decrease the number of poor people, wouldn’t that have an impact on violent crime? And the answer is, sometimes, and sometimes not. But most violent crime — and here’s the key to the question — most violent crime is not motivated by economic issues at all. It’s not motivated by money. It’s motivated by anger, by disputes, by conflicts between individuals. This is true for murder, this is true for assault, and it’s partly true for robbery because robbery is, in part, motivated by economics — that is, by the desire to get wealth or valuables from the victim. But it’s also partly motivated by the desire to impose violence on the victim because robbery is a kind of hybrid of violent crime and pecuniary crime. So, for much of violent crime, for homicide, for assaults, for robberies, in part, and for rape as well, for example, pecuniary interest, economic considerations are not the drivers. And therefore, the rises or falls in the economy really don’t have any impact on those offenses. They might have an impact on larcenies, on thefts, maybe on burglaries, which are purely pecuniary in motive, but not on homicides, murders, on assaults or even much on robberies.
Ben Weingarten: So would it be fair to say that to those who take a materialist perspective, that economic conditions are an outgrowth of culture, and while there may be a correlation between, like you said, the vast majority of those who are criminal as being poor, that culture actually is a much greater determinant of whether or not an individual will become a criminal than their economic status?
Barry Latzer: Yes, I believe that’s true because when we look at the behavior of groups that are in the low socioeconomic status bracket, we find very major differences in their rates of violent crime. So let me give you an example of this, Ben. In the course of my studies, I was looking at Miami, Florida in the 1980s, which was a very difficult time for the city. It had riots, they had huge drug problems, and they had very high crime. Enter into Miami, boatloads of Haitians fleeing the turmoil and turbulence of their island. So imagine this now, here are people who are black, who are illiterate, who are not English-speaking people in the first place, who are not welcome into the United States, but who manage to get here anyway because of the short boat rides they had from Haiti to Florida. And they flood into Miami, Florida. Now, they have all the disadvantages and almost none of the advantages, right? They’re poor. They’re black, so they would have been discriminated against because of race, just the way African-Americans were at the time. Their English is limited. They’re not even literate necessarily in the Haitian tongue. And yet, when we look at their violent crime rates, we find their rates are actually considerably lower than African-Americans who lived in Miami, and in some cases lower even than the whites living in Miami.
So how can we explain this? Since they had all the adversities of African-Americans in the same spot, at the same time, we would expect comparable rates of violent crime, and yet their rates are much lower. So there must be something about the Haitian way of life, the Haitian culture, that reduced violence in interpersonal relations among the Haitian people who came here, and that seemed to hold crime down among them. This, to me, is a great example, a great illustration of the point that, just because a group is poor, doesn’t mean they’re going to have high rates of violent crime. So while it’s true that almost all violent offenders are poor, it’s not true that all poor groups are violent.
For much of violent crime, for homicide, for assaults, for robberies, in part, and for rape as well, for example, pecuniary interest, economic considerations are not the drivers
Ben Weingarten: Transitioning to today, there have been some notable spikes in violent crime rates in some American cities, which I think are still probably, and you can tell me if I’m wrong, based on the empirical evidence, but are somewhat amplified and over-amplified by the fact that we have media and social media that is instantaneous, and therefore might blow out of proportion the actual increases. But leaving that aside, there’s also now a decrease in mandatory minimum sentencing, as well as the freeing of so-called non-violent offenders, non-violent felons. What do you anticipate the impact on society will be of both what’s going on today and then these policy changes?
Barry Latzer: Eric Monkkonen, who unfortunately is no longer with us, who was an excellent crime historian, thought that there was a cyclical effect for violent crime. He argued that when we loosen social controls on violence, we get an increase in crime, and when we tighten those controls, we get a decrease. So what usually happens, he said, is you get a spike in violent crime and everyone says, “Oh, my G-d, we’d better toughen things up. We can’t let this continue.” So you get a toughening of the criminal justice system and other social controls. After a lag period, this reduces violence and violent crime in particular. Well, of course, after a while, humans being what they are, you get objections, of course, to the tougher criminal justice system, the tougher social controls, and the liberal forces argue, “It’s too punitive, it’s unfair” — and sometimes, of course, it is unfair — and therefore we ought to relax these social controls. So after a lag, the social controls having been relaxed, then lead to another build-up of violence.
So what I’m concerned about is this, Ben: We’re clearly entering a period where there seems to be a consensus that the criminal justice system is too harsh now, it’s too punitive, needs to be diminished, police need to be controlled more, the number of people sent to prison needs to be reduced, conditions in the prisons need to be improved. So if we’re not smart about it, and if we relax these social controls too much, then, if Monkkonen is correct, we’re gonna get another rise in violent crime. If we are smart about it, and if none of these other red flag factors that contribute to an increase in violent crime are present, then we might get away with it. So we’ll have to wait and see, but obviously, I think there’s a bit of a risk once we start diminishing the effectiveness and the impact of the criminal justice system.