Today, we ask how to reduce crime. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Serious crime doubled in the
1960s and '70s, then it leveled off after 1980.
Since 1980, the number of people in jails has
tripled while crime rates have been fairly steady.
One American male in thirty is presently in jail or
under some form of correctional supervision. We're
putting more and more money into a system that
isn't affecting crime one way or the other.
Now Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi analyze
the data to see what we might do to control crime.
They find most crimes are committed by people in
their mid-to-late teen years. After that, criminal
activity drops off steadily. They also find few
specialized criminals. Crimes like theft, drug use,
drunk driving, murder, and assault are usually
crimes of opportunity, largely done by the same
people: teens with low self-control.
These teens typically show low self-esteem and
little interest in long-term goals -- whether it's
the goal of an education or of a carefully planned
crime. Most teenage crime is for instant
gratification. That's why, if you want to protect
your home, your best bet isn't to make break-ins
impossible. Instead, put your effort into making
robbery inconvenient for the kid acting on an
Crime rates have stayed high since 1980, but then
quit rising because the baby boom left its teens.
What has increased is the rhetoric surrounding
crime. The perception that crime is rising has been
fueled by the media, and by politicians who use
crime to win votes.
Gottfredson and Hirschi write eight rules for
controlling crime. The rules say things like: Don't
try to control crime by jailing teens into
adulthood, far beyond the age of maximum risk. Long
jail terms don't deter people who only think in the
short term. They simply eat up public resources.
Don't expect jails to achieve rehabilitation. Aging
rehabilitates criminals a lot faster than jails do.
The place where crime can be controlled, they
insist, is in programs aimed at restricting
unsupervised teenage activity, and in programs of
early education and effective childcare. They
strongly recommend using our money to increase the
number of caregivers relative to the numbers of
Our efforts to control crime are too closely tied
to our emotions. Those of us who've been violated
by crime or seen loved ones violated want to swing
an axe or embrace a slogan. It's very unsatisfying
to see crime control reduced to a slow, careful,
empirical science -- reduced to the painstaking
labor of redeeming teenagers.
So we go on wasting our means and wasting our young
-- waiting 'til the damage is done. Playing on
victims' emotions only sets the stage for creating
new victims. All we'll do is lose our children and
then go bankrupt as well, if our only answer is to
put messed-up teenagers out of sight -- for what's
left of their lives.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds