Fear resides in all living creatures. It’s what keeps us alive down at the watering hole or out on the street.
The fear of crime strikes all who live with its dread, as well as those who are personally victimized. Fear keeps us from doing what we want to do; it causes us to distrust friends and to view strangers with prejudice; and it can trick us into trading freedom for a false sense of security.
Many of us have grown up with an expectation that we have the right to a comfortable existence and that with education and hard work we can achieve a better than average life. Such naiveté has been mostly dispelled. Familiar patterns have been disrupted-perhaps forever.
Billions are owed on student loans by graduates who can’t find a job. Millions of hard-working people are suddenly out of work and unable to sustain their dreams. They are saddled with massive credit card debts and unpayable mortgages, and they find little relief in new bankruptcy laws that deny them the chance to obtain a fresh start.
More than six million workers have lost their jobs in the last year and the “real” unemployment rate that includes “marginally attached” workers is 15.8 percent. The actual unemployment rate that includes those no longer looking for work is far higher, up to 25 percent. Unemployment benefits have been extended several times, most recently under the federal economic stimulus program, but the time will come when even this benefit will expire for millions of working families.
Tent cities are springing up around the country as the mass of homeless, hopeless and helpless people continues to swell. Evictions are skyrocketing, as even formerly middle-class people including professionals, small business owners and skilled workers can’t pay their rents.
Food banks are overwhelmed, welfare safety nets are being shredded, and the tax revenues of municipal, county and state governments are plummeting, just when they are needed the most.
It is likely that the number of all children who live in poverty will exceed 27 percent next year, including 50 percent of all African American children.
As we worry about losing our jobs, paying our bills, feeding our children, and obtaining health care, must we also fear becoming a victim of crime?
One doesn’t have to be a criminal justice system expert to predict the influence of economic upheaval upon crime in our society. You only have to read the newspaper or watch the evening news to see that the risk of crime and violence is going up.
It has been established that individuals act rationally in turning to crime when the opportunity for honest work evaporates. Thefts of property and burglaries of unattended homes and businesses will undoubtedly increase as desperate people resort to self help. There has already been a surge in certain crimes of opportunity, such as burglaries of expensively furnished, but unoccupied McMansions that are up for sale and, at the other end of the scale, homeless people are squatting in vacant foreclosed homes.
While property crimes usually involve stealth and opportunity, the FBI reports a substantial increase in confrontational home invasion robberies-one of the most frightening of all violent crimes. These armed invasions started several years ago with drug dealers ripping each other off. Now, a Google search of “home invasion robberies” results in thousands of hits detailing recent violence against innocent people in their own homes across the country.
In just the last year, six women have been assaulted in their San Diego homes by a robber who remains at large; authorities recently arrested four men on 34 felony charges following a series of residential robberies in Orange and Los Angeles Counties, and a three-year-old child remains missing after being kidnapped during a violent home invasion robbery two weeks ago in San Bernardino, California.
Although difficult to prove, a “fairly substantial” correlation has been found between mass murder and national unemployment rates. Hardly a week goes by without a report of an unemployed father murdering his family and committing suicide or a fired employee returning with an arsenal of weapons to gun down former co-workers and bosses.
Domestic violence is on the rise as women suffer the anger and frustrations of their unemployed male partners. The National Institute of Justice reports that women are three times more likely to be abused when their husbands are unemployed. A reverse corollary occurs when unemployed women are economically forced to stay with battering mates.
Eleven percent of U.S. households now lack enough food for a healthy, active life and more than 3.5 million children under the age of five are at risk of hunger. With poverty and unemployment on the rise and falling food bank stocks, food insecurity is increasingly threatening the well being of millions of Americans, and the risk of food riots in the United States is growing.
The rest of the world is already experiencing public disorder resulting from the worldwide recession, as protests and riots have erupted during the last year. Economically-related riots took place in Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast and Senegal, and other violence occurred in Greece, China, Latvia, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Russia. Massive protests were held in Paris, Rome, Moscow and Dublin.
Some like to blame the entire collapse of the U.S. economy on illegal immigration, and hate crimes against Latinos and Hispanics have increased by 40 percent since 2003. The number of organized hate groups has grown by 54 percent since 2000 to as many as 926 in just the last year. These groups provide a focus for the rage and frustration experienced by those, increasingly of the former middle class, who have lost their jobs and dreams of the good life.
With the election of an African American president during an economic crisis attributed by many to illegal immigration, the Internet provides hate groups with a forum to spew the same kind of flammable propaganda that fueled the Holocaust. Web sites maintained by these groups are attracting hundreds of thousands of registered users who find common cause for their racial hatred and violent fantasies.
The other side of racism is the anger felt by African Americans and Latinos, who suffer unemployment rates double that of whites, are twice or three times as likely to be uninsured, and who are being foreclosed out of their dream homes, evicted from their apartments, and thrown into the street.
The risk of violent insurrection in the United States is multiplied by all of these factors, but expands geometrically when the ready availability of firearms is factored into the equation. The militia movement that raged throughout the Clinton administration and lay dormant during the Bush II years is again being called to arms by a host of right-wing agitators. The response is frightening to imagine.
We need look no further than our border with Mexico to see the consequence of poverty, organized crime, and firearms played out in violent reality. Criminal drug gangs killed more than 7,000 people last year in Mexico, and had virtually taken over several border cities until the military and federal police were brought in to regain control. Supplied from the United States, where gun control statutes are lax, Mexican gangs are armed with military weaponry not available to police officers, such as .50 caliber rifles that easily penetrate bulletproof vests. Of the thousands of traceable weapons seized in Mexico last year, 90 percent originated in the U.S.
The fact that a thousand Americans are murdered with firearms every month is only part of the tragic story. More than 30,000 die each year, including 17,000 suicides and 800 accidents. Seventy thousand Americans survive being shot each year, including 48,000 crime victims, 4,200 attempted suicides, and 15,000 accidents. Three thousand of these U.S. gun deaths are children, constituting 86 percent of all children under the age of 15 killed by firearms worldwide.
Police officers kill 300 and wound more than 1,000 people each year, many of whom are armed with guns. Even though 38 police officers were murdered with firearms in 2008 and 15 have already died this year, the National Rifle Association continues to promote the right of individuals to own assault rifles and to use ammunition that can penetrate the protective vests of police officers.
Police officers suffered the highest homicide rate in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. Overall, National Institute of Justice researchers found that “the harder the economic times and the greater the economic uncertainty, the higher the murder rates were for both police officers and the general public.” (Kaminski and Marvell)
To fight its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military has trained hundreds of thousands of our sons and daughters to kill other humans in contravention of every quality and emotion instilled in them by a lawful and peaceful society, and thousands of them have tragically followed orders to do so. The military acknowledges that at least one in five of these soldiers suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome causing them to “relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.” Hundreds of these soldiers have returned home to commit crimes of violence that cannot be otherwise explained than as a result of the carnage they witnessed and participated in.
Although veterans are guaranteed five years of “medical” care after discharge, the government argued in a lawsuit last year that the statutory right does not include mental health care. The federal judge ruled that while the Veterans Administration “might not be meeting all of the needs of the nation’s veterans” he was powerless to do anything about it. All of us will have to live with the consequences of the violence we have engendered in this generation of warriors for decades to come.
There’s no shortage of bad news. These were just the headlines.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” However, we have already seen, following 9-11, that Americans passively accepted the draconian provisions of the PATRIOT Act, wholesale eavesdropping of domestic communications, preventive detention without trials, and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Just how far are we prepared to go as racial and economic rage boils to the surface and crime rates explode?
The United States already has the highest incarceration rate, greater than any other nation. Today, almost 25 percent of all prisoners in the world are confined in our jails and prisons. Thirteen and a half million adults pass through more than 5,000 jails and prisons in the U.S. each year, 60 percent of whom are racial or ethnic minorities. The mentally ill in America are four times more likely to be found in prison than in a mental health hospital.
The U.S. is on a prison building spree constructing “security housing units” which are, in many aspects, a return to medieval dungeons in that prisoners are confined in small concrete boxes with steel-plate doors. Prisoners live in silence, except when they scream, and they are “extracted” from their cells by teams of guards in combat gear armed with stun guns.
Children as young as 10 years old are now considered to be competent to stand trial in juvenile court in many states, and most treat children as young as 14 as adults. As many as 150,000 children are now locked up in adult jails and prisons, and more than 2,300 of them are serving “life” terms, including 73 who were 14 or younger when they were arrested.
State prison costs now exceed every other public spending category, except for health care. In 2008, the states spent an estimated $47 billion on prisons-approximately $29,000 per prisoner. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has 36,000 employees deployed at 115 institutions to confine 204,000 inmates at an annual cost of $5.6 billion.
State and federal prison authorities are increasingly warehousing their prisoners in commercial facilities operated by private corporations. The Corrections Corporation of America operates 64 facilities netting an income of almost $38 million per year. One lawsuit against the corporation alleges that it operates overcrowded facilities requiring inmates to sleep on the floor. The ACLU believes private companies are “notorious for cutting essential costs that need to be provided to maintain a safe and constitutional environment for prisoners.”
Although some states are revising their mandatory sentencing laws and allowing early release of nonviolent offenders to reduce their prison populations and costs, we as a society have to fear a legislative conclusion in the future that all prisoners should be forced to work to pay for their own incarceration. We must never forget the words, Arbeit macht frei, or “work brings freedom,” displayed above the entrance to Nazi concentration camps or our own Depression era chain gangs that resorted to whippings, tying prisoners to posts or locking them in “sweat boxes” to compel hard labor.
Or, might some fiscally concerned legislature decide that the cost of incarceration for murderers and repeat offenders is too high and that life sentences should be eliminated in favor of death sentences for everyone who poses a substantial risk to society? The United States is the only democracy that carries out executions, more than a thousand since 1976, including 22 juvenile offenders. We also voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution in December 2007 that called for a global moratorium on the death penalty. Are we going to follow the lead of China where more than 1,718 prisoners were executed last year, some for economic crimes?
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that a poor person accused of a crime has the right to competent and effective legal representation. With increasing case loads and decreasing budgetary resources, state and local public defenders have become so overburdened that some are refusing to accept more cases. In 2000, the Justice Department found that public defender “contracts are often awarded to the lowest bidder without regard to the scope or quality of services, organizational structures are weak, workloads are high, and funding has not kept pace with other components of the criminal justice system. The effects can be severe, including legal representation of such low quality to amount to no representation at all, delays, overturned convictions, and convictions of the innocent.” This report was issued during flush economic times. What will become acceptable as the public coffers are emptied?
Can we expect President Obama to be more respectful of individual rights than President Bush was? An answer can be found in his recent request for the Supreme Court to reverse its own 23-year-old decision prohibiting police from questioning a represented defendant until his lawyer is present.
President Obama has already sought to restrict the right of prisoners to test the genetic evidence used to convict them, invoked the “state secrets” privilege to block essential discovery in civil lawsuits, and has decided to continue the imprisonment of “enemy combatants” in Afghanistan without trial.
Scared yet? Fear is not a bad thing, unless you let it paralyze you. Do all you can-before it’s too late.
William John Cox is a retired supervising prosecutor for the State Bar of California. As a police officer he wrote the Policy Manual of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Role of the Police in America for a national advisory commission. Acting as a public interest, pro bono lawyer, he filed a class action lawsuit in 1979 on behalf of every citizen of the United States petitioning the Supreme Court to order the other two branches of the federal government to conduct a National Policy Referendum; he investigated and successfully sued a group of radical right-wing organizations in 1981 that denied the Holocaust; and he arranged in 1991 for publication of the suppressed Dead Sea Scrolls. His 2004 book, You’re Not Stupid! Get the Truth: A Brief on the Bush Presidency is reviewed at http://www.yourenotstupid.com, and he is currently working on a fact-based fictional political philosophy. His writings are collected at http://www.thevoters.org, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.