Tough Justice Is Saving Our Inner Cities

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The sharp decline in crime in America since 1980 has benefited almost everyone by improving personal safety in homes, at school, and on sidewalks, buses, and subways. But the inner-city poor, living in neighborhoods that typically suffered from high rates of violent crime, have by far been helped the most.

The much-improved quality of life in inner cities is the driving force behind the housing boom in downtowns across the country. Private houses and apartment buildings in black- and other minority-inhabited neighborhoods are being renovated and better maintained because their market worth has risen greatly, largely in response to the improved safety. Middle-class families of all colors and ethnicities are moving to these neighborhoods that are close to jobs and still have cheaper housing than other areas.

During the past 20 years, crime has fallen in the United States even as it has risen sharply in Europe.

This improvement is obvious on the South Side of Chicago, where I live. During the 1960s and 1970s, when crime was high and rising rapidly, many houses in this section of Chicago were abandoned and subsequently burned down. But new houses are rising on empty lots and are selling briskly at elevated prices in a housing boom the likes of which has not been seen in this part of Chicago for more than half a century. Good-quality supermarket chains and other businesses have opened new stores in areas they once avoided. Neighborhood morale has improved, along with safety and property values.


Crime fell in the United States even as it rose sharply in Europe during the past 20 years. This is partly because America has enjoyed a long period of prosperity with low unemployment. However, another key difference is the American criminal justice system’s greatly increased rate of apprehension, conviction, and imprisonment of persons guilty of committing robberies, assaults, and other felonies. Most European nations, by contrast, continued to reduce their imprisonment rates during this period.

The increased tendency to incarcerate criminals has resulted in 2 million Americans behind bars. Most prisoners are younger men, with disproportionate representation among blacks and Hispanics. It is a disturbing commentary on the tensions in the social fabric that black men are imprisoned at eight times the rate of white men.

Not surprisingly, this has led to accusations of racism on the part of police and courts, charges that have been fueled by documented cases of police brutality and harassment of blacks and Hispanics. But notwithstanding these terrible episodes, life in inner-city neighborhoods is much better than in the past, when police paid little attention to crimes committed against blacks.

Inner-city blacks and Hispanics are the main victims of crime in this country. As such, they have been the chief beneficiaries of increased police enforcement.

In fact, increased police enforcement particularly benefits minorities because the vast majority of violent and property crimes are committed against persons of the same race and ethnicity. Criminals seldom travel far to find homes to burglarize, and violent crimes tend to be committed against friends and family members. So inner-city blacks and Hispanics are the main victims of crimes, as confirmed by the federal Crime and Victimization Survey.

Since crime in the inner city is much higher than elsewhere, fair police enforcement would require more-intensive police effort in these neighborhoods than elsewhere. This means that, even in the best of worlds, blacks and other minorities are more likely to be stopped and searched for guns, stolen property, and drugs.

Reasonable Criteria

Of course, even the best of worlds won’t be ideal. Many subtle forms of police discrimination are hard to document, and police enforcement sometimes goes too far. One way to objectively assess the validity of charges of excessive harassment of minorities and unfair "racial profiling" is to examine how often police find incriminating evidence on blacks who are stopped. An unfair pattern of police behavior would be indicated if stops of blacks less frequently find evidence of crimes, compared with whites who are stopped. That would imply the police should be stopping more whites and fewer blacks. But if stops of blacks and whites uncover evidence at about the same rate, that suggests the police are using reasonable criteria for deciding whom to stop and search.

Economists at the University of Pennsylvania used this test to determine whether the Maryland state police discriminated in deciding which cars to stop and search for illegal drugs. The research concluded that although black drivers were more often stopped, the police more frequently found drugs in their cars than in searched cars driven by whites. So the police do not appear to have unfairly profiled black drivers. With the appropriate safeguards, such as making sure all stops are reported, police stop-and-search procedures in other states and cities could be evaluated along similar lines.

It is highly lamentable that blatant examples of police discrimination accompanied the steep decline in American crime rates. But on the whole, law-abiding blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities have been the major beneficiaries of more-proactive police and court procedures.