The fear cycle


Alex Himelfarb considers the state of crime policy in this country.

In her 1997 study of public opinion and perceptions of crime in the U.S., Katherine Beckett showed that fear of crime did not lead public policy, it was the other way around. Tough on criminals policy creates the perception that rising crime is a serious problem, that we ought to be afraid. And the inevitably escalating government action simply continues to feed those fears.  Breaking the cycle is very hard. California’s current governor tried to pass bizarre legislation tying prison spending to education spending as something of an admission that he was helpless to do anything about the shift of scarce resources from health, education and welfare to prisons.  His frustration is understandable – California spends 45% more on prisons than on higher education.  This is not a path we want to follow.


The fear cycle

  1. An increase in the prison population is an ultimate result of privatization of, what should be, commonly held resources.  Deregulation means an increasing degree of servility for the general population to a cadre of contract holders.  In another time, this manifested as slavery in the antebellum South.  Today, the USA has massive colonies of temporary to permanent prisoners.  Is it exactly the same thing?  No, but the motivating misapprehension of economic principles is the same.  

    Aren’t there plans for prison expansions here?  Does this presage dramatic changes in economic policy that will advantage private interests to the detriment of common interests leading to societal breakdown: IE: increasing criminalization of behaviors?  

    I say yes. 

  2. “Of course there will be many who, against all the evidence and all the experts …. ”

    Can Himelfarb explain why he thinks public should trust experts?

    1) The violent crime rate in Canada has gone down slightly in recent years from a peak in the early 1990s ….  However, it was still 35% higher than 20 years ago (Source: Statistics Canada, The Daily, July 21, 2005).


    2) Freed from the clutches of the criminal justice system, David Chen has returned to his Lucky Moose market a little wiser and a lot more careful …. Citing the “broken windows” theory, by which communities lose faith in the rule of law when minor crime goes unpunished, the judge suggested Mr. Chen “tried to fill the void where the justice system failed,” and asked, “could Chen, after all, not be the canary in the coal mine?”


    3) In 1981, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould published…… larger lesson of the Gould-Morton affair is that bias is everywhere, that many of our studies are shot through with unconscious errors and subtle prejudices ….In recent years, it’s become clearer that these psychological shortcomings are a serious societal problem. Because we believe we’re impervious to bias—we’re blind to our own blind spots … ”


    • Can Himelfarb explain why he thinks public should trust experts?

      Perhaps because experts tend to base their conclusions on evidence as opposed to their “gut”. 

      I don’t happen to believe that our crime rates (nor our violent crime rates) are sufficiently high that reducing them should be a particularly high priority right now, but even if I did there’s something to be said for the fact that harsher sentences and putting more people in prison has never been shown to reduce crime rates anywhere, ever, the times that that has been tried.  If enacting harsher penalties and throwing a huge percentage of your population in jail were the way to reduce crime, then the U.S. would have a much lower crime rate than we do.

      I don’t always trust experts, but I think they’re worth listening to when they point out that the government is advocating policies that have been shown, over and over again, to either not have the impact they claim to want to have, or worse, to have the OPPOSITE effect.

      Tories tend to treat crime rates the way they treat deficits.  They’re great fodder for the campaign trail and rallying the base, but when it comes to actually doing work to REDUCE them, the history of conservative efforts is a pretty consistent history of failure.

      • “Perhaps because experts tend to base their conclusions on evidence as opposed to their “gut”.

        Himelfarb: It is even tougher to understand the current Canadian approach as it comes at a time when crime and its severity have been declining, year after year.  While inevitably short of unanimity, there is a remarkable consensus among the experts.

        1) StatsCan: “John Turner, chief of Statscan’s policing services program said that, “Most of the drops we’ve seen over the last decade have been in non-violent crimes.”

        To put the slight decreases in perspective, between 1962 and 2006, the violent crime rate in Canada, per 100,000, went from 221 to 951, or a 300%+ increase.

        Violent crime has risen 12 per cent in the last ten years among youths ….. 

        Youth homicide rates have risen 41 per cent since 1997, one of the largest increases in the last ten years …. 


        2) The larger lesson of the Gould-Morton affair is that bias is everywhere, that many of our studies are shot through with unconscious errors and subtle prejudices …. In recent years, it’s become clearer that these psychological shortcomings are a serious societal problem ….. 


        3) The story of how Malthusians like the Paddocks were certain that mass starvation would sweep the world, and destroy nations like India, is an important reminder to beware experts who are sure they know what the future will bring. It’s also an important warning for decision-makers: Excessive confidence can be extremely dangerous.


        • “Can Himelfarb explain why he thinks public should trust experts?”

          I think you need to read Gardner’s book again. He certainly didn’t intend for data to be replaced by a handful of cherry-picked, self-serving anecdotes.

          • Himelfarb: 

            Before getting to the substance, let me admit that a very significant part of my public service career was spent in the justice sector, in what was then the Ministry of the Solicitor General (now Public Safety), the Justice Department and the National Parole Board.  Let me add that in all the time I worked on these issues I never met an official, elected or unelected, who was “soft on crime”, not ever, not once.

            StatsCan:  An examination of the Statistics Canada table on Page 19 record that 221 violent crimes per 100,000 were reported in 1962.  

            This figure increased year by year, doubling by 1970 to 480 per 
            100,000, increasing again to 636 per 100,000 by 1980 and finally peaking at 1084 per 100,000  by 1992– a 500% increase in 30 years or a third of a century.


            The most fundamental lesson that emerges from such experimentation to date is that our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound. Despite confidently asserted empirical analysis, persuasive rhetoric, and claims to expertise, very few social-program interventions can be shown in controlled experiments to create real improvement in outcomes of interest.


          • Your point?

    • When California is paying out more for Corrections than for Education, you don’t even need a study to conclude something is terribly wrong with their approach.  This appears to be the direction Harper is leading us. For a guy who hates paying taxes, this should bother you.

    • if you don’t like experts, why do you continue to quote them?

  3. ‘California spends 45% more on prisons than on higher education.  This is not a path we want to follow.’

    No, it definitely is not the path we want to follow!

    That’s just stupid.

    California could vastly reduce it’s prison population if they simply legalized pot…instead they’ll move to privatizing prisons, and end up with even more in jail.


     “Surely one key test of any society is how we treat the most vulnerable and, even more particularly, the most despised ….  let me admit that a very significant part of my public service career was spent in the justice sector … And let me repeat,  most troubling of all, this turn to “tough on criminals”  makes Canada a meaner – not safer – place …. His concern with contemporary politics is bigger than that; it resides in its refusal to lead citizens to higher ground, to challenge us, to inspire us to find our better selves …. This view gives not much space to the idea of redemption or, for that matter, to compassion … ”


    Jonah Goldberg:

    Ever since Theodor Adorno came out with his scandalously flawed Authoritarian Personality in 1950, liberal and leftist social scientists have been trying to diagnose conservatism as a psychological defect or sickness. 

    Adorno and his colleagues argued that conservatism was little more than a “pre-fascist” “personality type.” According to this school, sympathy for communism was an indication of openness and healthy idealism. Opposition to communism was a symptom of your more deep-seated pathologies and fascist tendencies. 

    According to Adorno, subjects who saw Nazism and Stalinism as similar phenomena were demonstrating their “idiocy” and “irrationality.”


    • ‘conservatism as a psychological defect or sickness’

      Oh I think anyone reading your posts would come to the same conclusion. LOL

    • If Conservatives don’t like being considered mean and stupid, they should endeavour to be less mean and less stupid. Instead of shining about the mean comments.

      • The first step toward being less stupid: stop quoting Jonah Goldberg.

  5. We msay not want to follow that path, but the Conservatives want to follow it, and make most Canadians as stupid and ignorant as themselves.

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