Poverty and lack of opportunity breed crime.
To many, that may sound like a liberal platitude. The present public mood calls for toughness on crime. Politicians compete with each other in proposing hard anti-crime measures. But Harvard University economist Richard Freeman predicts that the mood will shift, that it will be seen that popping criminals in jail isn't the only answer to crime. Young men, especially those in the nation's slums with little chance to acquire a good education and job skills, must be given jobs, subsidized if necessary, that can compete better with the rewards of crime.
"At some point," Mr. Freeman says, "the prison population is going to be of such a size we are going to say, there has got to be a better way."
Freeman suspects Republican state governors will lead the way when middle-class voters become more aware of the cost of keeping a growing percentage of Americans in jail. Already, he notes, the cost of state prisons in California exceeds the cost of the state's famed university system.
When parents no longer can afford to pay rising tuitions at state universities, as states cut subsidies to these institutions to pay for more prisoners, governors will have to scramble to keep voters happy, he predicts. "Things will change."
In 1993, there were 1.35 million men in prison. That's about one man incarcerated for every 50 in the work force. Another 3.51 million men were either on probation or on parole. All told, the number of men "under the supervision of the criminal justice system" was equal to 7 percent of the work force, Freeman notes.
Most of those involved in crime are young. In 1993, 2.9 percent of 25- to 34-year-old American men were behind bars. Altogether, 10 percent of them were under supervision of the criminal-justice system. Some 34 percent of black men who have not graduated from high school are incarcerated. About two-thirds of all men in jail are dropouts.
Freeman's thesis is that these unskilled men experienced a sharp decline in demand in the job market in the 1980s and early 1990s. Wages after inflation dropped precipitously for the less-educated and unskilled. Many turned to crime to either supplement or substitute for legal incomes.
Experiencing rising crime rates, the public demanded action. More and more criminals were caught and put in jail. With a rising prison population, the number of crimes committed per male should have fallen by half between 1977 and 1992, Freeman calculates. But it didn't. Instead it rose modestly. Freeman figures the propensity for criminal activity by men not in jail increased by 163 percent during that time span. And he blames this on the collapse of the job market for less-skilled men, which boosted the economic rewards of crime relative to legal work.
Freeman is not denying that tough measures against crime have an impact. Crime would be worse without them. He agrees with studies showing that putting more police on the streets reduces crime, and he advocates such action. Nor does he argue with a study just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., by colleague Steven Levitt, showing that get-tough measures deter crime by scaring potential offenders, even more than by getting criminals off the streets. Thus tough anti-crime laws, such as the "three strikes and you're out" measures passed by Washington State and California, should work to deter crime, Mr. Levitt says. These laws put anyone found guilty of committing three serious crimes behind bars for life.
Stern laws and more imprisonment, Freeman says, may explain the decline of major crimes in 1995, which was reported earlier this month by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But, Freeman argues, society has to offer young men "something good to behave good." They must be able to make enough money in a legal job, perhaps $20,000 a year, to compete with the risky wages of crime. Studies have shown, for example, that drug dealers in Washington, D.C., earn $2,000 a month net of expenses. When working time is considered, they get $30 an hour.
Raising the minimum wage might help a bit in making legal work more attractive, though it would be hard to prove, he says. If the Federal Reserve allowed a further drop in unemployment, it might also help by pushing up wages. But Freeman holds that government-subsidized private jobs and public job programs are necessary, and that these would be cheaper than more prisons.