"Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them broken. You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against - then you'll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We're after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you'd better get wise to it. There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted - and you create a nation of law-breakers - and then you cash in on guilt. Now, that's the system, Mr. Rearden, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with." ~Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged


by Randall G. Shelden

Crime benefits the crime control industry

The number of people in American prisons and jails passed 6 million last year. That figure reflects the results of the "get tough," ultra-conservative crime polices that began in the early 1970s.

The effect of these policies is that the crime rate today is about the same as it was in the early '70s. Yet during this same period the incarceration rate has increased by more than 400 percent, while annual expenditures on the criminal justice system went up by 1,500 percent (approaching $200 billion).

The incarceration rate is now more than 700 per 100,000 population, higher than any other country in the world.

The rising incarceration rate has done considerable damage to the black population, as blacks are about eight times more likely than whites to be locked up. The incarceration rate for women (with minorities leading the way) has increased the most, going up by more than 700 percent over the past 25 years.

While many researchers have blamed the drug war for this sorry state of affairs, there is another reason for the growth in imprisonment rates, which is less obvious. I am referring to what has been called the crime control industry. In recent years controlling crime has become a big business, an "industry" like other industries such as manufacturing and retail trade. Literally thousands of companies are seeking profits in this booming industry. The criminal justice system alone provides a steady supply of career possibilities for police officers, prison guards, probation officers and many more. Most of these jobs offer not only good starting pay, but excellent benefits and a promise of future wage increases and job security. The police, the courts and the prison system have become huge, self-serving and self-perpetuating bureaucracies with a vested interest in keeping crime at a certain level. They need victims, they need criminals, they need customers, even if they have to invent them.

Prison construction is a booming business too. An ad by an investment group states: "While arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made -- profits from crime. Get in on the ground floor of this booming industry now!"

In a sense, private industry and the criminal justice system cannot afford to put a large dent in the crime problem, because it would have such a negative impact on the industry. Two words sum it up: Politics and economics. Politics, in the sense that elected officials want to be re-elected, and sounding "tough on crime" gets votes; economics in the sense of not only the money to be made by businesses but the number of jobs created.

Part of the problem can be summed up by way of a parable. Imagine a large river with a high waterfall. At the bottom of this waterfall hundreds of people are working frantically trying to save those who have fallen into the river and have fallen down the waterfall, many of them drowning. As the people along the shore are trying to rescue as many as possible, one individual looks up and sees a seemingly never-ending stream of people falling down the waterfall, and he begins to run upstream. One of his fellow rescuers hollers "Where are you going? There are so many people who need help here." To which the man replies, "I'm going upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river."

Now imagine the scene at the bottom of the waterfall represents the criminal justice system, responding to crimes that have been committed and dealing with both victims and offenders. If you look more closely, you will begin to notice there are more people at the bottom of the stream, that they work in relatively new buildings with all sorts of modern technology and that those working here get paid rather well, with excellent benefits. The money keeps flowing into this area, with all sorts of businesses lined up to provide various services and technical assistance. If you look upstream, you will find something far different. There are not too many people, the buildings are not as modern, nor is the technology. The people working there do not get paid very much and their benefits are not as good as those provided down below. Nor do they find businesses coming their way with assistance. They are constantly having to beg for money.

A researcher, writing about our health care system, observed that capitalism "finds it more profitable to treat illness rather than prevent it."

He notes that "preventive care measures, such as decent sewage and water systems, draining swamps near cities, education, sanitary food handling, and wholistic health practices bring little in terms of profits for pharmaceutical companies or the larger capitalist system." The American medical industry has a financial stake in treating rather than preventing diseases.

If we pretend for a moment that crime is a disease (in a way it is), then this analogy makes perfect sense. Simply put, reacting to crime is far more profitable for business and other interests than preventing crime. Our criminal justice system is designed to fail to reduce crime, because, although citizens would be greatly benefited from less crime (just as citizens would greatly benefit from fewer health problems), the crime control industry would not benefit. If you want a lower crime rate, you must spend more money upstream. In order to do this, however, the interests that now control the criminal justice system would have to be convinced that there is a larger profit to be made from investing upstream, rather than downstream.


Randall G. Shelden is a criminal justice professor at UNLV. His latest book 

is Criminal Justice in America: A Critical View (Allyn and Bacon).

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