Challenging Misleading Narratives about Crime

“There are many reasons why young people turn to crime which do not lend themselves to hasty simplification. But not the least of them is a failure ‘in the opportunity structure,’ the disillusioning experience of discovering as they grow up that the promise of decent housing, good schools, and attractive job opportunities apply to most Americans but not to them.”
Sargent Shriver | Winston-Salem, NC | February 21, 1974

Our Quote of the Week highlights a common cause of crime: a lack of economic opportunity. The “opportunity structure” to which Sargent Shriver refers includes necessities – adequate education, housing, health care, jobs – that are out of reach for far too many of us. As Shriver observes, therefore, the reasons why people turn to crime “do not lend themselves to hasty simplification” -- despite what many of our headlines would lead us to believe.

Sargent Shriver spoke these words in his 1974 Address at the Wake Forest University Carlyle Lecture. The speech focuses on the theme of justice. To make his points, Shriver compares the US and the then-Soviet Union, pointing out that although the US has been perceived as a more just nation than the USSR, the US, in reality, lacks justice for all of its citizens. He introduces the notion of a “Ministry of Justice”, whose focus would be more sweeping than the Department of Justice, addressing the injustices that marginalize and deprive people of their basic human rights.

On the topic of crime and punishment, Shriver has much to say:

“The greatest deterrence to crime is justice that is speedy. The criminal court is the central, crucial institution in obtaining that objective. Yet, virtually everywhere we find a shortage of judges, of prosecutors, and of accessory help for them both; we see hopelessly inadequate court facilities in almost all urban communities and in many others we find larger and larger dockets and heavier and heavier backlogs. Congestion and under-mannning force prosecutors to take emergency measures to reduce the dockets. Guilty pleas and reduced or even suspended sentences are sought on an almost desperation basis; plea bargaining, reduced charges, and dropped cases become the practice. And courts try to hear an inordinate amount of cases in one day in “assembly-line” justice. Such a system is not designed to further justice or promote respect for the law.

Yet, the development of justice has done virtually nothing to remedy these deplorable conditions. It neither leads others nor innovates on its own. It expends its efforts on dubious measures such as preventive detention and no-knock authority, when it should be focusing on securing speedy trials, on training fair and efficient prosecutors, and defenders, on equipping courtrooms and obtaining sufficient and able judges so that justice will be meted out surely and quickly. This would do more to reduce crime than all of the tough rhetoric.

We know, too, that crime is greatest among our youth and in our ghettos. almost 40% of arrests are for persons under 18. Some 70% of persons convicted under 20 years of age are rearrested within 5 years.

But why should such statistics surprise anyone? Our neglect in this area has been unconscionable.

Throughout our country, we still jail first time offenders with hardened criminals. Our juvenile detention homes are obsolete, crowded, and understaffed; often they become schools in criminal practice rather than institutions where rehabilitation can take place. We release offenders without aiding them to get jobs, or caring about the effect on them and their families of having to seek employment with a prison record.

Our jails are archaic, lacking facilities to teach gainful work, and destructive of the human spirit. Their doors have become turnstiles for the return of recidivists.”

Shriver’s observations are both astute and prescient. He identifies the causes of crime (poverty and lack of opportunity) as well as the effects of an inhumane justice system which have led to mass incarceration in the US.

Today, our news is peppered with stories about crime in our communities. What is often ignored, however, is the need for addressing the causes of crime, which Sargent Shriver describes as a failure in the opportunity structure. More and more, there is pressure to abandon criminal justice reform and to increase spending on policing and prisons, while the causes of poverty that often lead to crime go unaddressed.

In the fall of 2022, the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund released a report that debunks false narratives about crime. The report shows that “requiring cash bail, the election of ‘tough on crime’ prosecutors, and level or increased funds for police departments did not prevent cities from experiencing a 2020 homicide spike. Relatedly, cities with bail reform, progressive prosecutors, and proposals to redirect police funding were no worse off than other cities, disproving the link between increased crime and these reforms. The report also offers a robust analysis that highlights reasons for the 2020 increase in homicides, including pandemic-induced instability and inequality, as well as pre-pandemic housing and economic inequality.”

To be sure, tackling crime in our communities is complex. But let us remember to seek out information that focuses on crime’s causes as well as its effects. It is only if we understand the “failure in the opportunity structure” that we can create a society that cares for all of its citizens and that satisfies all of our basic needs: adequate shelter and nourishment, good health, solid education, economic opportunity – and dignity, safety, and justice. Satisfying all of our basic human needs will, in the long run, be the most effective crime prevention strategy we could possibly implement.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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