UC Berkeley press release


Crime is not the problem, lethal violence is, say UC Berkeley researchers

by Julia Sommer

Berkeley -- A study conducted at the Earl Warren Legal Institute of the University of California at Berkeley concludes that costly wars on crime are doomed to failure in the United States because they are attacking the wrong problem.

Lawmakers need to craft a sophisticated response that specifically addresses death-dealing mayhem, say the authors, Franklin E. Zimring, professor of law and director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute, and Gordon Hawkins, senior fellow at the institute.

Burglary and theft rates in the U.S. are comparable to those in other Western developed countries, Zimring and Hawkins found. The U.S. has about the same level of common crimes and the same number of criminals as many other nations. Even the likelihood of becoming a victim of an assault is higher in Australia, New Zealand and Canada than in the U.S., crime rates show.

Then why are residents so much more afraid in the U.S.?

Lethal violence is a distinctively American problem. The rate of criminal homicide in the U.S. is four to 14 times higher than in other Western industrialized nations. That is what Americans fear, but the common belief is that the high rate of killings is the natural consequence of a large number of criminals and a high crime rate.

Not so, say the authors of this new study. They compare burglary and robbery in New York City and London during 1992. London had about 20,000 more such crimes than New York. Seven people were killed during a burglary or robbery in London, however, while 378 people were killed during such crimes in New York.

Zimring and Hawkins present these findings in the new book, "Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America" (Oxford University Press). It is the largest scale empirical crime analysis ever produced in an American law school.

In comparing the U.S. to other industrialized nations, they have found that American crime rates are comparable, or even lower, in most categories of nonviolent crime (burglary, theft, and other property offenses). This trend holds true when they compared cities of roughly the same size.

Crimes such as burglary and theft are part of modern urban life worldwide, they say. Only when it comes to lethal violence does the U.S. outpace other Western nations, with homicide rates many times greater.

The authors show that most killings in America do not have their origins in criminal activity--most stem from arguments. In 1992, arguments led to 32 percent of American homicides, while felonies and suspected felonies accounted for 16 percent. It is not just burglary and robbery that are more deadly in America, it is arguments after traffic accidents and barroom fights, say the authors.

The study compares the death rate to victims of different types of crime in the U.S. for the first time. Except for assault, robbery is by far the most dangerous American crime, with a death rate per thousand crimes 2 l/2 times greater than rape and 50 times as deadly as burglary.

Why are the streets of American cities so much more lethal than those of other countries with just as much crime and just as many criminals as the U.S.? And what can be done to bring the death rate from American crime, and the public's fear of it, down to tolerable levels?

The impact of television and movie violence on rates of homicide is wildly overrated, say Zimring and Hawkins, who illustrate their conclusion with homicide data from Europe and Japan. By contrast, it is hard to overestimate the importance of guns, which are used in 70 percent of all U.S. killings, but in only four percent of all crimes.

Reducing lethal violence requires different tactics than fighting a general war on crime, the authors conclude. They argue that traditional law-and-order, tough-on-crime campaigns blur the distinctions between lethal violence and other offenses, and that these campaigns have proven expensively unsuccessful.

California's "Three Strikes" law, for example, treats burglary and robbery as crimes of equal seriousness. That's exactly the wrong approach when the death rate from robbery is 50 times greater, say the authors.

A response to lethal violence in the U.S. should include widening the punishment gap between non-violent burglary and armed robbery. It should also include a wide variety of strategies to make crime safer in the U.S., says Zimring.

These would include serious efforts to reduce hand gun ownership and use, environmental deterrents to robbers and violent assaults--such as cashless buses and bullet-proof vests--and training potential crime victims to minimize the chances that violent crime will end in death--such as not resisting a robber.

The safety of residents is more important than crime-free cities and more achievable as well, he maintains.

The Earl Warren Legal Institute is an organized research unit in the UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) established to support empirical studies.

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