23 April 2007

Conservative Approaches To Crime Control

In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, conservatives predictably suggested that this tragedy could have been mitigated if more people on campus had guns. In response, it is worth taking a look at the big picture of the conservative criminal justice agenda.

Widespread gun ownership, long prison terms, and the death penalty are at the core of conservative criminal justice policy. Conservatives also tend to favor limited due process for criminal defendants. Conservatives tend to be fans of the importance of religious faith in controlling crime.

Gun Ownership

As noted in the previous post, Americans own more guns per capita than any other country in the world, about a third of the world total, and 90 per 100 households. A little more than 64% of American households don't own guns (an a record high for non-ownership of guns falling from a low of about 45%). About 10% of households own 4 or more guns, making up 77% of the total.

High American gun ownership rates are in part due to a skew from multiple gun owners, that may prevent countries in which large numbers of households own guns, but fewer households can afford to, or wish to collector guns like Israel and Switzerland. Still, outliers aside, nobody seriously questions that the United States has a high level of gun ownership by international standards. Also, while data is sketchy, few people doubt that gun ownership rates are higher than the national average in the American South.


The United States also has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Compared with other countries, the United States has among the highest incarceration rates in the world. More people are behind bars in the United States than any other country. As of 2006, a record 7 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole. Of the total 2.2 million were incarcerated. China ranks second with 1.5 million followed by Russia with 870,000. The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population.

As of 2006, the incarceration rate in prison and jail, in the United States was 737 inmates per 100,000 or 1 of every 136 adults. For the most part, the U.S. rate is three to eight times that of the Western European nations and Canada. The rate in England and Wales, for example, is 139 persons imprisoned per 100,000 residents while in Norway it is 59 per 100,000. In many countries, it is common for prisoners to be paroled after serving as little as one third of their sentences. In the US, most states strictly limit parole, requiring at serving of at least half of the sentence. For certain heinous crimes, there is no parole and the full sentence must be served.

The prison population in China was 111 per 100,000 in 2001 (sentenced prisoners only), although this figure is highly disputed. Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in forced-labor camps for criticizing the government, estimates that 16 to 20 million of his countrymen are incarcerated, including common criminals, political prisoners, and people in involuntary job placements. Even ten million prisoners would mean a rate of 793 per 100,000.

Death Penalty

The U.S. doesn't have the highest execution rate in the world, but only a handful of countries execute people more often. China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and Iraq account for 95% or more of the executions in the world, and only few dozen nations execute people with some regularity, most less often than the United States.

Due Process

The U.S. as a whole as stricter due process for criminal defendants than many countries. But, the vast majority of criminal prosecutions take place at the state level, and due process standards, in practice, vary greatly from state to state.

Many criminal justice systems in the American South, such as those of Virginia and Texas, are famous for the low level of financial resources made available to public defenders, and the prosecution bias of the appellate courts that handle criminal cases. These states also tend to be stingy in making executive clemency available; it is often limited by the state constitution in the American South. Many states in the American South have also adopted doctrines such as limitations on the insanity defense, that make it easier to secure convictions. In murder cases, the requirement that jurors be "death qualified" also insures jury pools that are even more conservative than an already conservative general public in death penalty states.

The tendency nationwide, as part of the "war on drugs" and in juvenile criminal cases to vest increasing discretion on prosecutors rather than the judiciary, has already increased the pressure to waive due process rights in favor of plea bargains.


The United States is one of the most religious countries in the developed world, as measured by surveys of what Americans believe and as indicated by measures like church attendance. Almost every America prison has an active religious community supervised by chaplains made available by prison wardens.

The South As A Conservative Criminal Justice Ideal

The American South, has among the highest gun ownership levels, the greatest tendency to use the death penalty, the highest incarceration rates, the weakest due process protections in state courts, and the most religious populations in the United States. This is hardly surprising, the American South is conservative when it comes to criminal justice and elections have consequences.

International Comparisons

Led by the American South, the United States is also one of the closest fits to the conservative model of criminal justice in the world. It isn't quite the conservative ideal. But, it is hard to find a candidate for an overall system that is a better fit. China also uses frequently incarceration and the death penalty applied with limited due process, but isn't known for its liberal gun control laws and pervasively religious population. Gun control laws aren't terribly liberal in Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite their fits to other parts of the conservative ideal of criminal justice.

In much of the undeveloped and developing world, places like Mexico and Yemen, for example, strong law enforcement not corrupted by criminals, another part of the conservative criminal justice model, is often absent.

Switzerland, while hailed by conservatives for its widespread gun ownership, also has one of the most non-punitive approaches to drug offenses in Europe, which is already far more liberal than the United States generally. In some cases the Swiss government provides drugs to people in prison (not just imitation drugs like methadone).

Israel and Iraq are hard to compare to the U.S. because each is in the midst of a civil war. For example, while in the U.S. there is a clear demarcation between firearm use by civilians and by law enforcement, it is hard to know how to classify a shooting by a member of an armed militia or paramilitary group, a category that makes up a large share of firearms use in each country. Likewise, it is hard to know how to classify incarceration in the nature of prisoner of war detention as opposed to conventional criminal convictions. And, violent strife between religious sects that define Israel and Iraq is virtually absent from the United States.

Where's The Beef?

The problem for the conservative model of criminal justice policy is that, given that the United States is among the closest to its ideal, it ought to have one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and the places where its policies are most fully implemented, the American South, ought to have the lowest crimes rates in the United States.

This simply isn't the case.

Murder is more prevalant in the American South than any other region in the United States. The United States has higher crime than almost all, if not all, of its economic peers.

Is It Demographics?

The conservative answer to this has been to point to demographics. Places like low crime Japan, and low crime Western Europe, have historically been homogenous societies compared to the United States. Within the United States, the thing that low states with low murder rates have in common is a great deal of ethnic homogenity, while high murder rate states have large minority populations. This analysis then invites analysts to look a "demographically adjusted" crime rates for different states and show that on that basis that conservative criminal justice policies work.

Western Europe, however, isn't nearly as ethnically homogeneous as it used to be a few decades ago. The European Union has invited intra-European migration into communities that had often been the ancesteral homes of those who lived there for centuries. International migration, often from Africa and the Islamic world, has also changed the ethnic makeup of countries like France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. Yet, American levels of serious violent crime are still absent.

These nations tend to have more gun control (particularly the U.K.), these nations are more lenient in imposing incarceration, these nations are much more lenient about controlled substances, make extremely limited or non-existent use of the death penalty, and these nations are more secular than the United States. Also, notably, they have, almost to a one, a stronger social safety net. But, if any of the elements of the conservative criminal justice were important to crime rate outcomes, one would expect these nations to be overrun by crime compared to the United States.

Mass Killings

Also, while many serious crimes are strongly associated with poverty and social disadvantage, for example, armed robbery, armed burglary, car jacking, gang related killing, and crack dealing, particularly horrifying crimes like mass shooting sprees of the type we recently saw at Virginia Tech are not. Mass shootings seem to be more the province of middle class men seing their lives fall apart than of the under educated, economically deprived poor. This makes the conservative demographic argument particular weak in this class of crimes.

In the United Kingdom, which has strict gun control laws, crime rates for many violent crimes have risen to nearly American levels, and sometimes a little more, but, not murder or other gun crimes. The United Kingdom has been spared the levels of mass shooting sprees, gun murders and armed robberies seen in the United States, even as other crime has grown.

Increasingly diverse Australia, which imposed strict gun controls after a 1996 shooting spree in Tasmania, not unlike the Virginia Tech massacre.

The United States has about twenty mass murders a year (murders of four or more people at once). If the United Kingdom had mass murders at the same rate (adjusting for population only), it would have had forty mass murders a year in the last decade. It has had a couple in that time period. If Australia had mass murders at the same rate, it would have had about fourteen mass murders in the last decade. It has had none.

The differences are statistically significant, despite the fact that the number of highly infrequent events that occur, like mass murders, are far more variable than more common events, because the more common an event is, the more the law of averages tends to smooth out the number of events from year to year.

This doesn't, by itself, prove that gun control prevents mass murders, but it is suggestive. Clearly, the U.K. and Australia are doing something right that the United States isn't doing, and there aren't any obvious alternative explanations other than gun control that make more sense.

Bottom Line

While the conservative approach to criminal justice has great visceral macho appeal, in short, it can make us feel good, it simply doesn't work. It is also a very expensive approach in terms of public spending and the tax burden that flows from that spending. We as a country need to change course.

1 comment:

deadissue.com said...

Wow! That was a monster effort right there, thank you! Great site...I'm glad there are others out there who are still talking about gun control, since the MSM is likely to let it slide, along with most everyone in DC
Here is my contribution to the effort:
Arm Fratboys -or- Curb Straw Purchases?
I linked to your site on http://deadissue.com - hope you'll check it out and maybe reciprocate.
Peace - DI