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No justice, no peace; an interview with Jerome Miller.

According to the latest (what else?) polls, the fear of crime has become a full-scale national panic: over one-quarter of the respondents-28 percent--in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll cited crime and drugs as the greatest problems facing the nation, leaving in the dust such previous winners as unemployment (9 per, cent), health care (8 percent), and foreign policy (2 percent).

This explosion of fear--unreasoning, all-consuming, and markedly anti-humanistic--is tearing away at our national sanity and poses an ugly threat to our future. Consider some recent events: in October 1993, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Sharon Pratt Kelly, formally asked President Clinton to send the National Guard into the city to help "secure" black neighbor, hoods. Although the District of Columbia is the most heavily policed sector of the nation, it has also (not coincidentally) become the nation's "murder capital": 1,300 homicides in three years. Some members of Congress have even demanded that the Justice Department deputize them as US. marshals and allow them to carry handguns. Orrin "Quick Draw" Hatch and other congressional personnel have already been armed and deputized.

While some people are justly concerned about the implications of placing the nation's capital under military occupation, others have enthusiastically embraced such initiatives. For example, in a recent appearance on "Charlie Rose," jazz critic and self-acclaimed "hanging judge" Stanley Crouch called for the U.S. military to operate internment camps within US. borders for our "internal enemies" And in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, hundreds of National Guardsmen and police have taken over 23 public-housing projects since June, usually (as Dave Beard of the Associated Press describes it) "in swift nighttime operations complete with helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and shouted orders to residents."

Meanwhile, in New York City, a man shoots and kills two muggers who attempt to hold him up as he walks home. Much of the city responds to the deaths of these two black teenagers with barely concealed rejoicing. "They miscalculated when they tried to pick on him," said one citizen, who sent the man a $500 prize, "and I'm glad they did it." Another man told reporters: "I wish he took out a few more of them." Two days later, two off-duty police officers separately shot and killed two more alleged muggers.

And yet, in the latest issue of The Public Interest quarterly, Jeffrey Snyder insists that we have become "a nation of cowards and shirkers" and that the only feasible solution to crime would be to arm everyone.

What is happening in this country? We asked Jerome Miller, the executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. The NCIA, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, has worked hard to develop a range of humane alternatives to our current strategies of incarceration and retribution, while Miller himself is among the most thoughtful and progressive analysts of American crime policy. Not surprisingly, he had much to say about the hidden agenda of our malfunctioning and brutal criminal-justice system.

The Humanist interviewed Miller on October 21, 1993.

The Humanist: Tell me about the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. What kind of work does it do?

Miller: Well, we're a nonprofit group that I founded about 15 years ago now, to provide some alternative ways of looking at the criminal-justice system. We do a lot of alternative sentencing for people who would otherwise go to prison or jail. We do a lot of work with street offenders and with some white-collar offenders as well. We do a fair amount of death-penalty work, preparing mitigative studies people being tried on capital offenses. We do research on various issues. We also do some consulting with reference to prison and jail overcrowding, and then we have an active clinical program for violent offenders of various sorts.

The Humanist: When you say you do "alternative sentencing," does that mean you're working with various law-enforcement authorities and prison systems?

Miller: No, primarily with individual cases. We've probably done 12,000 to 15,000 alternative sentencing proposals, which means we go into court on the day of sentencing and propose a range of options for people who would otherwise be institutionalized.

The Humanist: What kind of options?

Miller: Oh, a wide range of things: community service; restitution to the victim; if necessary, various forms of supervision within the community; drug or alcohol treatment programs. We try to do for the average offender what a thinking, compassionate, middle-class parent or brother or son would do for someone in their family were they in trouble--that is, design some kind of program that would hopefully prevent the person from committing any more crimes, but also that would try to deal with that person decently and humanely. And we try, as much as possible, to divert them from the criminal-justice system, and certainly from the correctional system, which we see as ultimately much more destructive than helpful.

The Humanist: How big is the NCIA?

Miller: We have a staff of around 200. Some of them are in direct programs, like the closed facility for violent youngsters we run down in Florida--kids committed to us primarily on charges of murder and serious aggravated assault and that sort of thing. We also run a fairly large program in Baltimore for mentally retarded offenders who otherwise would be in the back wards of state hospitals; we have them in a variety of supervised living arrangements in apartments around the Baltimore area. Then our central office in Alexandria, Virginia, does mostly alternative sentencing. And we have a clinical program that deals with violent offenders and sex offenders; we always have about 60 or so people getting treatment in that program on any given day.

The Humanist: So your operations span pretty much the entire United States?

Miller: Yes, we've had offices in a number of states, although we had to pull back because it just got to be too much to manage. Some of those offices have spun off on their own. The offices in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago are separate entities now, locally incorporated.

The Humanist: And how did you end up in this field?

Miller: Well, I'd previously headed a number of state systems. I was the head of the Pennsylvania Youth Correction system for Governor Milton Shapp, and when he left office I decided to found this organization. Before that, I headed the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; and before that I was on the cabinet of Governor Frank Sargent, a Republican governor of Massachusetts, and headed the youth-correction system there.

The Humanist: And how would you describe the success of the NCIA's programs? What kind of results are you getting?

Miller: Well, most of the studies done on our alternative sentencing have been very positive. I think we can mitigate a lot of recidivism and cut back on serious offending, and we can certainly break into the cycle of violence which so much characterizes the present corrections and criminal-justice system in this country--which is now probably the single greatest threat to our national well-being in our history. The single greatest contributor to crime and mayhem on the streets today is the criminal-justice system itself.

The Humanist: Then what do you think the purpose or philosophy of criminal justice is, or should be? What kind of purpose animates you?

Miller: Well, hopefully to bring some peace and calm to the community--but I don't think that is true any longer. There's been a real sea change in this country in our approach to criminal justice. For the most part, particularly in the last six to eight years, our "war on crime" has been focused on the poor and minorities, especially black men. It hasn't come back yet to bite the majority--but that will ultimately happen. I don't recall seeing anything like this ever before. And you know, I was a psychiatric social-work officer in the Air Force for 10 years, with the Strategic Air Command and with the Tactical Air Command in this country and overseas, so I don't come from a tremendously liberal background. But I've been around the criminal-justice field some 30 years now, and I've never seen anything like what we've been seeing in the last decade, much of it coming out of the so-called war on drugs. It's now routine for prosecutors to engage in the worst kinds of dissembling and dishonesty, for the police to lie and subvert the truth in pursuit of a confession, to pay snitches, and to subvert justice in every way without a single pang of conscience or second thought about it.

The Humanist: You're saying this happens now more than it has in the past?

Miller: Oh, much more. I mean, there was probably much more open police brutality in the 1930s in terms of extracting confessions and so on, but it's a much more powerful establishment now. It's a huge, multibillion-dollar industry, and it has become very subversive of American democratic principles. I think the majority of the white population gets a little inkling here and there with things like the Waco tragedy or even the Randy Weaver siege out in Utah. These incidents give you some idea of what's going on in terms of the gross misuse of power by the police, by prosecutors, by the courts, really with little regard for truth and less regard for anything decent or humane. This establishment has just built itself up fantastically over the last decade. And its power has mostly been concentrated on the black community. I've just written a book which has been accepted by Cambridge University Press, to be published early next year; it will be entitled Search and Destroy: On the Plight of the African-American Male in the American Criminal-Justice System. And I predict in it--much in line with what Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie has said--that, by the turn of the century, we will have the absolute majority of young black men in the correctional system on any given day, most of them in camps and in prisons around the country. Certainly every indication is that we're going in that direction, and I don't see any great shift in the Clinton administration away from it.

The Humanist: That brings up an interesting point, because in our last issue our "Civil Liberties Watch" columnist, Barbara Dority, wrote a piece on the state of American prisons, and she said: "It's now official: it's cheaper to send a person to Harvard" than to prison.

Miller: Oh, there's no question of that.

The Humanist: But why is that? I think most people would look at that statistic and find it absolutely incredible.

Miller: Well, it's a very expensive, unaccountable bureaucracy. There's no more unaccountable system than a corrections system; the clientele consists of convicted criminals, so it would be virtually unpatriotic to respond to their needs. It's also a very, very expensive system to run, just in terms of the bureaucracy. I believe the average cost is actually somewhere around $20,000 to $30,000 per year. If you look at the juvenile system, which is worse, and where in many states now you'll find almost exclusively black kids--at least in the state institutions--it's costing between $60,000 to $70,000 per year, per kid, literally to destroy them. We're not talking about anything good happening to them in these places.

The Humanist: But if you turn to a magazine like Newsweek, or if you turn on the nightly news, you'll never see that issue raised, and you'll never see the discussion framed in those kind of racial terms.

Miller: That's because it's in code. I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Lani Guinier, in which she referred to the "rhetorical wink" There are certain code words that allow you never to have to say race, but everybody knows that's what you mean--and crime is one of those rhetorical winks. So when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we're really talking about is locking up more and more black men. That's what everyone means, that's certainly what's driving the New York City mayoral election at this point, and you can see it happening all over the country. You're not supposed to mention race, of course, and if you do you're being divisive, but that's what it's all about.

The Humanist: The corporate media usually frames the debate over the criminal-justice system as follows: you have conservatives, on the one hand, saying that the criminal-justice system should be in the business of punishment; and you have the "bleeding-heart liberals," on the other, saying that it should be about rehabilitation. But what would you say? Is it about either? Is it about both?

Miller: Well, I don't think all that many liberals talk about rehabilitation any more. I notice Lee Brown did a bit in his new drug policy proposal, and certainly Janet Reno does to a degree, but I doubt there's much commitment to that. There was a myth circulated very successfully in the early years of the Reagan administration that rehabilitation doesn't work, that there was no evidence to prove that any of the rehabilitative programs had ever worked. As I say, it was a myth, and it was put forth by a New York City sociologist named Robert Martinson, whom I knew quite well personally and who tragically killed himself in later years. It was very interesting, because Bob was basically a kind of Trotskyite, and his earlier writings on this advanced the conclusion that we should actually begin closing prisons down. But the myth was taken up by the right, particularly by neoconservatives like James Q. Wilson and others of the ilk, and it was used to justify a theory of "incapacitation" which said that, since rehabilitation doesn't work, let's just lock them up. The Rand Corporation was the first to develop the theory of incapacitation. Its people came out of the Defense Department after having done all their successful work in Vietnam and presented them, selves as experts in criminal justice. They pretty much called the shots in those years.

The Humanist: Which years are these?

Miller: This was in the late 1970s, and then they really got into things in the 1980s. Wilson first spoke about these issues in Thinking About Crime, a book that rallied conservatives around this issue in the mid-1970s and succeeded in moving this country toward this model of deterrence and incapacitation as the only justification for the corrections system. From there, we moved to mandatory sentences and "do the crime, do the time" type rhetoric. What was not said, however, although this has clearly been the case--as they say, it was a rhetorical wink--was that this policy was meant to apply primarily to minorities. That was never talked about. Wilson later wrote a book with Richard Herrnstein, the Harvard psychologist, on crime and human nature, in which they hinted--another rhetorical wink--that crime may, in fact, be genetic; the wink being that it's probably black. That book was well received by liberal commentators.

The Humanist: Certainly crime has become the most racially divisive issue for American society today. I watched your appearance on C-SPAN, and I remember the woman from Florida who called in to say: "I know you're not going to want to hear this, but nine out of 10 people who are committing violent crimes are from the inner city. They are black ... and nobody wants to face this problem. It's totally and completely out of hand, and it's a segment of our society that we better do something about."

Miller: Yes--"lock them away." Of course, the genetic arguments put forth by people like Wilson get everyone else off the hook. His earlier book openly disparaged the idea of root causes of crime. It was silly even to think about them; we just needed to stop crime. Then, in his later book, he talked about these genetic components, and certainly that is a big element even of his latest book on the "moral sense"--that somehow we inherit a certain moral sense, I guess the implication being that some races inherit more than others. It's a bizarre sort of thing, but I think much of the liberal community is open to that sort of reasoning these days. We've turned away from looking at the social factors and social issues that create crime. We don't want to talk about things like adequate income, employment, anti-poverty programs--all of that is now passe. And so we're left with the idea that criminals therefore must somehow or other be simply wicked persons, quite unlike the rest of us--and if we can genetically define them, that makes it even easier. It's an easy way out. Then one doesn't have to feel any guilt for what goes on in one's society.

I'm very pessimistic about where things are heading. We're now close to a million people in prison, and if you include the jails, we'll soon reach 1.5 million. Somewhere around 1984 or 1985 we reached the point where the absolute majority of men in our prisons and jails were minorities, mostly black. Depending on whose statistics you look at--it's certainly been my impression--over 50 percent of e people in prison now are black. If you include Hispanics (some of whom are black), it adds another 15 to 17 percent, while slightly over 30 percent are white. So we're at a point now where over two-thirds of our prison populations are non, white minorities. That's the first time in our history that this has ever been the case. If you look back to the 1920s, when the black population in the country was approximately the same as it is now--it was about 11 percent then, it's about 12 percent now--only about 20 percent of federal and state inmates were black. But now we're well over 50 percent. I think that fact, in itself, has changed the quality of the discussion. Because now when we talk about building more prisons, when we talk about longer sentences, when we talk about throwing away the keys, when we talk about cracking down on violent offenders, everyone knows that we're talking about blacks. And so the sky is the limit now.

The Humanist: Has the NCIA done any kind of breakdown on "black" crime versus "white" crime?

Miller: Oh, sure.

The Humanist: The majority of crimes in this country are still committed by whites, correct?

Miller: Oh, sure, including the majority of violent crimes. There is no question of that. And there is no question as well that there is more violent crime in the inner city; that has always been the case. But there were more murders in one year in San Francisco in the late 1800s, when it had a population of around 30,000 to 35,000 people, than there were in the late 1980s, when San Francisco had a population of 700,000.

The Humanist: Then why do Americans today believe that they are experiencing some unprecedented epidemic of violence and crime?

Miller: There's just very little sense of history about this. They talk about the L.A. riots, for example, as being the worst in our history. Of course, that's total nonsense. If you look at the Detroit riots, if you look at the draft riots in New York City in the mid-1800s, the death toll was much higher and the destruction much greater than anything that occurred in Los Angeles. But there's very little sense of history, and there's very little desire to look at these things with some sort of perspective. The homicide rate for black men, for example, was higher in the early 1930s than it was throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s--only in the late 1960s, 1972, 1981, and 1991 did it reach the levels that it had in 1934. But this fact is widely ignored, even by people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who talks constantly about the bucolic, halcyon days of the 1930s and 1940s. Now, to some degree he's correct--there were ethnic neighborhoods back then that obviously were a great deal safer and a lot less disorganized. But violence within the black community was generally ignored in the 1920s and 1930s, and so were the very high rates of violent crime that occurred after Reconstruction--most of it white-on-black violence.

Now, there is no question that you're at much greater risk walking around a poor neighborhood at midnight in Washing, ton, D.C., than you would be in some rural town out in Iowa. The question is whether or not we're going to do something to begin to address the causes of such an environment. And it's now our belief that a significant percentage of the violence in our cities is being created by the criminal-justice system itself. I would use the District of Columbia as a prime example. It is now (the last I heard) the murder capital of the United States for cities with populations over 100,000. The District of Columbia is also the incarceration capital of the nation, and has been for quite some time. It incarcerates somewhere around 2,400 people per 100,000 now; I believe the national average is a little over 200 per 100,000. Even for most cities, the District of Columbia incarcerates at much higher rates than usual, both juveniles and adults. And I think what they've succeeded in doing is to create this huge alumni association on the streets for people who have been run through D.C's reform schools, jails, and prisons. It's almost a rite of passage for a young black male teenager to be arrested, to be hand, cuffed (often to peers) and dragged off in police vans, to be mug-shot, to sit in jail until released--most of it, incidentally, for nothing approaching violent crime, most of it for very small-time stuff. This policy carries with it a large number of very serious, unanticipated consequences. I think as a result they've re-created the culture of prison on the street. You really aren't anyone on the street unless you've done time in prison or in jail or in the detention center. The violent subculture of prison now permeates the streets, and that is a direct result of this overreliance on incarceration. And when you add to it law-enforcement techniques that are overtly and actively destructive of even minimal social cohesion within the community, then you have a major problem.

The Humanist: What are examples of those techniques?

Miller: Well, for example, snitching. In the heyday of prohibition and organized crime in this country, there was a code, even within the organized-crime community, that you didn't snitch on one another. That made it very difficult for law enforcement and, as a result, law enforcement was not based on paying informers; for the most part, it was based on gathering evidence. So while that made it difficult for law enforcement in terms of prohibition, it meant there was a certain code within the community which was adhered to and which kept a certain semblance of respect, a certain semblance of order, if you will. When you have thrown that away--when everyone is a potential informer on everyone else--you destroy whatever minimal social cohesion there is in a community. And if you look at the poorer areas of most of our cities now, there are so many informers and undercover drug agents wandering about, and so many young people being overcharged and then threatened with huge prison sentences unless they give up the names of every friend and relative in sight for prosecution, that this has a wearing effect on the community If you were to take prison as an example of a society run that way, you get results like the Santa Fe, New Mexico, prison, for example, which had the worst riot of this century in terms of violence and mayhem: people killed with blow torches and beheaded and what have you, mostly inmate-on-inmate violence.

The Humanist: When was this?

Miller: This was in the mid-1980s. Before the riots, when the warden took people around the prison and saw four or five inmates standing together talking, he would say to the visitors, "I own at least three of them." It was a prison run entirely by snitches, and, of course, it creates a Stasi-like society so that, when the lid blows, it's very hard to keep the violence in check. In effect, we have created exactly that kind of society in the inner city through our law-enforcement techniques.

The Humanist: How widespread is police brutality in the United States? Has the NCIA done any studies on that?

Miller: Well, certainly in terms of open brutality it's much less than what it used to be. But I think you see more and more the kind of thing that happened in Tucson, Arizona, not so long ago, where you had three fellows pressured to confess to a crime they knew absolutely nothing about, and finally actually confessing and giving details of the crime scene and so on. That is routine these days. "Nightline" did a marvelous program on it, and the one very telling clip that was used showed the FBI Academy teaching police officers this sort of technique: how to lie, how to mislead, how to put up pictures of a crime scene so that a person can pick up the details and be able to confess to being somewhere he never was. This kind of practice is now routine; we see it all the time. It's a system that can no longer be trusted.

The Humanist: But can the people who operate this system actually be that cynical?

Miller: I think a lot of them sincerely believe that the person is guilty before they manufacture the evidence. But I think it's more than that. I have no trust at all in prosecutors. I'm speaking very personally, but I think very often (to quote something I heard Jerry Spence say a couple years back) that for anyone to stay in that business these days they've got to be a little bit mentally unbalanced. I see a kind of zeal and a level of dishonesty on the part of prosecutors that is just appalling. It's something very insidious that's going on in the nation. I don't know what one can do about it. One proposal I've made is that no prosecutor be allowed to run for office--that they be appointed or, if they're elected, that they never be allowed to run again for any other office. Because it's become a media show, particularly in the federal courts, where prosecutors will stand on the courthouse steps and rant and rave and carry on and tell gross untruths. They're virtually unaccountable, and the media simply run with it because these days the criminal-justice system is a system run on sound-bites and throw-away lines. They're not interested in research, they're not interested in what works, they're not interested in anything that would lower crime--much less in anything decent or humane that's going to advance society. It's just a terribly corrupt system.

The Humanist: When you were on C-SPAN, Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, pointed out that, over the last decade, the prison population in the United States has doubled. By the end of the 1990s, do you think it will actually have doubled again? And if so, what will that tell us?

Miller: Well, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency has done an analysis that hasn't been published yet, but will be shortly, which carries to their final conclusions the recommendations of both the Clinton administration and the Republican leadership on crime control: such things as mandatory sentences with no parole; more prosecution of drug crimes; increased use of the death penalty; and so on. And the council predicts that, if we follow these recommendations, we will have within a very few years--certainly before the turn of the century--7.5 million people in prison. That's 7.5 million people in prison if we in fact put these soundbite-type recommendations that get such great applause into practice. Now, if current trends were to continue--and there's no reason to believe they won't--of that 7.5 million people, 4 million or more will be black. Well, there are only about 5.5 million black men between the ages of 18 and 39 in the nation. We're reaching a point where most age-eligible black men will either be in prison or on probation or parole--mostly in prison and camps.

We did a study here in the District of Columbia in 1992, and we found that, on any given day, 42 percent of all the 18-to 35-year-old black men living in D.C. were either in jail, in prison, on probation or parole, out on bond, or being sought on warrants. When we replicated the study in Baltimore, the figure was 56 percent. It doesn't take any great stretch of the imagination to see that we will have the majority of young black men imprisoned by the turn of the century, and the inner cities will be made up primarily of single women and children. That's where we're headed. And this is because we've tried to treat a wide array of complex social problems with the criminal-justice system. We've replaced the social safety net with the dragnet, if you will--and that would never be proposed, much less tolerated, much less advocated, were we talking about white people.

The Humanist: So what you're saying, then, is that race is the big, ugly secret that lies at the heart of U.S. crime policy.

Miller: Exactly. That's what it's all about, because statistically that's who we're locking up.

The Humanist: Let's talk about some of the crime stories that have been prominently featured in the media lately. I mean, you have the tourist murders in Florida which have been hyped to the hilt, and also the verdict just handed down in the Reginald Denny beating trial....

Miller: Well, the two of them are very interesting. The murders in Florida, for example, were a story that all the major networks ran with. It was featured on all of the evening news magazines, like "Day One" and "20/20," and they all had local juvenile judges who were yelling and screaming about not being able to be tough enough on juveniles: "We're being too permissive; the juvenile justice system has to be scrapped." Not a single one of those programs, nor the nightly news shows, appeared to have done their homework. Had they done so, they would have found that Florida is probably the most punitive state in the nation with reference to juveniles. Last year, Florida ran 16,000 kids through its adult jails. It waived 6,000 kids from juvenile court into adult court; it direct-filed on another 4,000 to 5,000 juveniles in adult court. Now compare that with Massachusetts, the state in which I set up the system and in which we closed all the state reform schools (and, incidentally, under a Republican governor). In 1992, Massachusetts couldn't have tried more than two dozen kids in its adult courts. And Massachusetts is no more unsafe than Florida. Massachusetts actually is in pretty good shape compared to demographically similar states. But Florida was presented as an example of a permissive system when, in fact, the truth is much different.

For example, I've been a monitor for the federal courts on jail overcrowding in northern Florida, in the Jacksonville-Duval County area, which has around 700,000 people. And Jacksonville-Duval County, on any one day, had 10 percent of all the black kids in adult jails in the nation locked in its local jail. And it will be closer to 20 percent soon, because the authorities are shooting to put 300 to 500 kids in that adult jail. It would have been front-page news if I'd had three kids in an adult jail in Massachusetts.

So the media don't bother to do their homework, and I think the reason they don't is, once again, because in Florida and elsewhere we are talking primarily about young black men. In actual, statistical terms, the crime rate in Florida was down last year--particularly the rate of violent crime against tourists. But you wouldn't know that. And the idea of focusing on tourist murders was an oddity, because there's something over 40 million tourists in Florida every year. It would be like focusing on men who were six feet tall and had blue eyes and determining how many of them were attacked last year; the statistic has virtually no meaning. I think the implied message, of course, was that they were white tourists attacked by young blacks; we're not about to treat that the same way as we would white, on-white crime. Incidentally, we do an awful lot of work with young black kids who've committed violent crimes. There's just very little understanding of what they're all about; they're portrayed by the media in these horrendous, stereotypical terms.

The Humanist: Certainly one of the biggest obstacles to correcting those stereotypes is the political uses of crime policy. You have Bush running against Willie Horton in 1988, and also Clinton in 1992 going to Arkansas to preside over Ricky Ray Rector's execution.

Miller: That's right. When it comes to crime policy, there's not a dime's worth of difference between them.

The Humanist: But what about the new federal crime bill that's going through Congress now with the Clinton administration's support?

Miller: There's not much difference to it from previous bills. It's basically Joe Biden's bill, and Biden is horrendous on these issues. And Clinton's White House staff is infiltrated with a lot of Biden appointees, so I don't see much coming of it. If anything, the criminal-justice system needs to be unwound; it doesn't need to be intensified. We're running somewhere between 12 million and 14 million people a year through local jails--however, 80 percent of them are for misdemeanors. These people are getting criminal records; we now have 46 million criminal records in this country. In Jacksonville-Duval County, of a population of some 720,000 people, there were 330,000 criminal records. We are criminalizing a large proportion of the nation, and among minorities we are criminalizing the majority. Even conservative researchers like Al Blumstein at Carnegie Mellon have concluded that the average black man in this country can expect to be arrested and charged for a crime sometime during his life. The majority--over 50 percent-will be charged with a felony. It won't go anywhere, there won't be much to it, but they'll be arrested and charged with it. And 90 percent can expect to be arrested at least once for a misdemeanor. Ninety percent, at least once in their lifetime. This estimate comes from a very conservative socio-econometrist who was an advisor to the Reagan-Bush administration.

Now, I have no quarrel at all with those who want to get violent criminals off the street--no quarrel at all. But in the process, we're criminalizing a large portion of nonviolent people and we're creating a lot more violence. I mean, you do not just willy-nilly arrest a father in front of a son, or break into someone's house after some kind of minor drug dealing and throw everyone onto the floor in front of screaming children and upset mothers, and drag people off the way we are now doing routinely in our inner cities, without having it come back at you. You create anger. It's a sad commentary, but I think eminently true, that the most honest commentators on this situation are the rap groups. What they have to say is awful to hear, but it's the clearest explication of what impact this is having. And you don't hear it from the black leadership, which is so often separated now from what's happening in the community. Here in Washington, they're mostly middle-class, they live in the northwest part of the city away from all the squalor and crime, and they're in, distinguishable from the white leadership on this issue.

The Humanist: Do you agree at all with what I think is a recurrent conservative notion: that there's been a vast moral breakdown throughout our society, and that this is the source of our problems with crime?

Miller: No, I don't. I think, as far as crime is concerned, that what we've seen is some class-crossing, if you will, that we didn't see before. Crime has left the restricted areas it used to be in and has begun to affect middle-class people. I don't see the situation the way it's being proposed now by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others. It's a winning formula politically; it sounds great. But it's an elitist notion that betrays little understanding of what's going on in the community--particularly in the minority community.

One thing we see in dealing with average offenders--the kind of person that would be stereotyped as a serious, violent, savage-like street offender (and we see a lot of these young people here)--is that no one has ever spent any time with them finding out where they came from, what their life has been like, what's happened to them, why they would do what they did. Those are the kinds of things which we not only do not want to know but from which we run in fear--because if we were to hear them, we'd all feel a little bit guilty. We'd all have to do something, we'd have to get involved, and we don't want that. It's much easier to start talking about people in genetic terms or as "born criminals" or as somehow or other racially flawed.

You may recall that last year the University of Maryland had scheduled a conference on the "genetics of crime" in which James Q. Wilson was to be the lead-off speaker. And it put out a brochure really hinting--more than hinting--that crime was genetically based (and, by implication, racially based). After it came to light (a lot of it having to do with NCIA's interest in it), there was upset within the black community, and the National Institute of Mental Health, which was going to fund the conference, pulled back from its funding--although I hear it's going to refund it again. Clearly, these are ominous turns, and they reflect the way criminological research is headed. It's become very much management, oriented; it's the kind of research that emanated from the Pentagon for many years. It's mainly head counts--there's very little anthropological methodology, there's very little feel for what people are all about, and there's very little narrative to it. It's the kind of thing that eminent psychologists like Jerome Brunner have been writing about--how we've lost the sense of narrative and, therefore, the human dimensions of much of this. And, of course, when you're talking about crime and criminals, it's very, very easy to fall into demonization and stereotyping. Not only will people accept it, you can build a political career around it.

The Humanist: It's true, too, that the way we define crime serves certain political and economic and social interests at the expense of many others.

Miller: It surely does.

The Humanist: I've been seeing articles lately about corruption and fraud at the Resolution Trust Corporation, the organization that's supposed to be cleaning up the savings and loan debacle. And those guys pulled off the biggest bank job in history; they ripped off far more money than every criminal in the inner city combined!

Miller: That's true. But there's a great mythology even about the amount of violent crime, you know; it's overhyped and over, stated. Now I don't want to minimize the fact that we have too many murders and too many muggings; but if you look at the rates of violent crime over the past two decades, there has not been that much change. There was a sea change, and a very large rise in crime, after World War II--maybe 10 or 15 years after, about 1960 or so, as that baby boom started to get into the crime-prone ages from the mid-teens up to the mid-twenties. Crime had been falling from about 1934 or 1935 pretty much all the way through 1960--there'd been a couple of slight blips but, for the most part, it had been going down, including violent crime. And then, of course, it grew exponentially between 1960 and 1972, much of it attributable to the baby boom. But from 1972 on, there has not been that much dramatic change. It went down from 1972 or 1973 until about 1980, and in 1981 it went way up again. Then it went down until the drug war began, and then it went way up again. But as a whole, the violent-crime rate has been vastly overhyped.

The Humanist: You said that when the drug war started the crime rate went up....

Miller: Well, the violence rate in particular, and I think it was largely attributable to our law-enforcement strategies for dealing with drugs. I think it was a direct result of criminalizing a lot of activities and then throwing away the rule book on how you deal with them. Certainly we threw away the Constitution when it came to the drug war.

The Humanist: What kind of alternatives do you think are available for making the criminal-justice system more just?

Miller: It's such a large industry now, I don't know. I think it's a matter of beginning to unwind it. We don't need more police, we need less police, and the police we have on the street should be focused on specific kinds of violent crime. But if they're going to have more police, and if they want to get back to the bucolic days of the 1930s, then the quality of policing will have to change. Back then, the police were a part of the community. They knew the neighborhood stores and most of the people and families in the community, and, very frankly, they ignored a great deal of illegal behavior. They handled things informally: they met with parents and their kids, they did all those things. An Irish cop in an Irish borough in New York City or in Boston certainly didn't deal with crime the way it's dealt with today, and the fact is he didn't deal with it in a tougher manner, he dealt with it in a more humane manner.

But now that we're dealing primarily with minority groups, particularly people of color, there's less and less of that happening--Los Angeles being the prime example of a militaristic, formal police model that has created its own gangs. I mean, the gangs in Los Angeles are a creation of the criminal-justice system. You aren't a gang leader unless you've been to one of the state prisons or the juvenile halls. Only the criminal-justice system could create groups like Noistra Familia and the Mexican Mafia and the White Aryan Brotherhood and the Crips and the Bloods and the Symbionese Liberation Army and all these crazy kinds of counterreactions, if you will, to law-enforcement intrusion into the lives of average folks. And I don't see that changing.

Former New York City Police Commissioner Lee Brown was accused of ignoring crime when he dissolved the tactical narcotics squad and had a lot less hassling of people in the neighborhoods. I think he was going in precisely the right direction and, in fact, the statistics available in New York City indicate that he was. Arrests went down, but so did violent crime, including homicide. And homicide is a reported crime--it wouldn't go down because people weren't reporting it. But, sadly, now that he's in the Clinton administration, he's backtracking on that. I noticed in his presentation on drug policy that he talked about the need to arrest minor drug offenders. Well, if they head back in that direction, they're going to be in big trouble again. There's a need to unwind; there's a need to find options--a lot of options -for the lesser offenders who are now going to jail and prison. We need to put an end to much of the jailing we do. As I say, 80 percent of the people brought into our jails are there for misdemeanors and lesser felonies.

The Humanist: Mainly for minor drug offenses? Drug possession?

Miller: An awful lot for what's called public-order offenses: drunkenness, trespassing, minor shoplifting. In our society, where the classes have become increasingly separated, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the jails are now what sociologist John Irwin calls places of "rabble management." We have taken away funding from other programs that should be dealing with this, and many of the programs that still remain have been professionalized to the point where the people who run them refuse to deal with anyone who causes problems. And so they are dumped on the police and they end up in jail. Mental-health clinics, for example, ought to be open around the clock, not from nine to five, and they ought to be dealing with the more intractable and difficult street people, not with the articulate and verbal psychotherapy candidates. But none of this is happening, of course. The result is that a lot of folks have fallen into the criminal-justice system. And the criminal-justice system, if there's anything we do know about it, usually makes matters worse. The best service you can do for anyone who finds themselves caught up in the criminal-justice system is to get them out of it as quickly as possible. There are some very dangerous and violent people who must be placed in it for public-safety reasons, but the majority of people in it should be out of it and under other sorts of supervision or receiving other sorts of services. But I don't think that will happen. I think we will increasingly rely upon the criminal-justice system as a means of managing the underclass.

The Humanist: But how long can that possibly go on?

Miller: It will go on until it changes the very nature of our society. And if we reach a point where we have 5 million to 7 million people in our prisons and jails, we will be a very different society from anything we've ever been in our history. As Nils Christie comments, we'll be a gulag society. And I think that's precisely what will happen. I'm not suggesting that the prisons will become concentration camps. I think they'll be much more benign--although I don't think we should discount the possibility of some of them moving in that direction, especially when you look at the so-called maxi-maxi prisons which have been recently developed across the country.

The Humanist: What are they?

Miller: They are the places being built to house those people who supposedly pose a "management problem" within the prison system--not necessarily people who have committed horrendous crimes but people who sass back or don't go where they're told, etc., etc. And based upon the federal model, which the national human, rights organizations see as a violation of basic human rights--the Marion Prison in Illinois, Pelican Bay in California, the one up in Baltimore; a number of states are doing this--they're horrendous. A very eminent professor friend of mine, one of the premiere sociologists in this country, visited the one in Baltimore and told me that, were this prison discovered after World War II, the people running it would be up for war crimes. People are kept in isolation or with white light on them all the time; they're subjected to sensory deprivation of the worst sort.

The Humanist: But when you talk to people or give lectures or appear on call-in shows or whatever, do you get a sense that people know what the prison system in this country actually is like?

Miller: No, but I don't think they really care, either. And that's because we're talking about black men; I don't know how else to say it. If you look at the average maxi-maxi prison, it will be certainly 60 to 80 percent black or more. If you look at the average state reform school now, it's the same--and I know the juvenile system very, very well. In Maryland, they're running 80 to 90 percent black, and no way is the population of Maryland 80 to 90 percent black, and no way are 80 to 90 percent of the kids in these places put there for anything like violent crime. And what I hear from my liberal friends--"Well, we may have lost a generation"--confirms to me that, in fact, they've judged young black males to be expendable. So when they start talking about dealing with root causes in terms of early childhood care, prenatal care, and so on, that's very nice; but I think it is also a way to avoid dealing with the reality that we already are trashing a generation and feel quite comfortable doing it.

The Humanist: If you could address the root causes, what would they be?

Miller: I think I'd be very traditional, very conservative in answering that question. I think it has to do with the family. When you look into the individual cases of kids, particularly those who've been involved in violent crime and who participated personally in the violence ... because you have to realize that for the large proportion of so-called violent crimes, no one did anything physically violent. In 90 percent of violent crimes, no one even required medical attention; less than 5 percent require any kind of even minimal hospital care--

The Humanist: Then how does it get categorized as "violent" crime?

Miller: Someone makes a threat of violence. But if you look at someone who has actually shot or stabbed someone, who personally engages and is able to engage in some horrific crime of violence, then the story is the same across the board--white, black, brown, whatever. They are usually folks who come from horrendous backgrounds; they've been subjected to all sorts of violence in their own lives; they hold life at very little value, as their own lives have been held. And this is not to excuse them but to suggest that we need to understand where this comes from and begin to deal with those kinds of problems. The amount of family abuse, sexual abuse, personal abuse, physical abuse within the family among these folks is just horrendous. The NCIA has done death-penalty mitigative studies on a couple hundred of them--it's just routine in these kinds of cases--and the personal violence that these people have themselves suffered is appalling.

The Humanist: I think that's undeniably true, and it certainly seems simple enough to understand. So why do you think our society has such an enormous problem grasping it?

Miller: Because we're dealing with black men. We don't want to know what goes on. We don't want to know about their life situation--particularly poor blacks. And incidentally, upper, class blacks don't want to know it any more than whites. Very often, they run from it as fast as the white power structure does.

The Humanist: Well, but that sounds all the more like the real issue is class, not race.

Miller: It is class, but ultimately in terms of the white community I think it's race. I don't think you would see this if it were primarily poor whites; I don't think you'd see this kind of viciousness if k were mostly tow-headed, poor Appalachian kids. It's quite different. Believe it or not, there are a large number of sociologists who still very strongly maintain that there is no racial bias in the criminal-justice system--you know, that everybody's dealt with equally and fairly. And for anyone to say that tells me the level of discourse in this country. These guys have never been in a normal courthouse, sat at a hearing, talked to an offender, or spent time with a jail inmate or his family. But there are many studies now--I outline them in my book--that clearly show a sort of cumulative process of discrimination that builds at every level of the criminal-justice system: through arrests, through charging, through jailing, and so on. It affects the decision to give bond, whether you're released on recognizance, whether you have to show up for your sentencing in prison dungarees or your own suit, the kind of sentence you get, whether or not you get drug treatment, whether you're going to be tried as a juvenile or as an adult--all of this is racially biased, all of it is to some extent racially determined.

Unfortunately, it's politically incorrect to talk about race these days. No one wants to hear about it until it's forced on them through a riot or something. The verdict in the Reginald Denny beating trial, which you mentioned earlier, provides the best example of what's going on underneath the surface. The reaction in the black community was that it was a pretty good verdict, and I would tend to agree with that, because I think those fellows were overcharged. Clearly, they should've been charged with aggravated assault or something like that--

The Humanist: But when you say "overcharged," do you mean they were too punitively charged or that every possible charge was piled on top of them?

Miller: They were charged with these crimes that would carry life sentences. The district attorney's office just got so vicious on this that even the jury couldn't buy it. And I don't believe the jury was frightened, I think the prosecutors probably couldn't sustain such charges. I think they would have been better off, if they were looking for a harsher sentence, to come in with a different charge around aggravated assault; they probably would have gotten them more years than they did with all the crazy charges around mayhem. But the reaction to the verdict is what I think is more telling. To a large percentage of the white community, the verdict was seen as favoring blacks, as letting these guys off too lightly. I don't think it's a correct perception, but it was the majority reaction, and I think that kind of dictates where we're headed. It's the same kind of thing as when the jury in the Simi Valley trial could look at those beatings by the police and somehow say that this seemed okay, it was just part of police procedure. It's bizarre to me that that could have happened.

So I see things as getting much more racially polarized, and I think the laws will reflect that. I don't think we'll go in the direction of being more humane. And I certainly don't think it matters that Los Angeles stayed calm, that no one got all worked up after the verdict--that's beside the point. We want our pound of flesh. We don't care what happens. We want to prove a point with blacks, and we're going to do it with the criminal-justice system.
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Title Annotation:Race, Crime and the Media
Author:Szykowny, Rick
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:Official stories: media coverage of American crime policy.
Next Article:Frankenstein must be destroyed: chasing the monster of TV violence.

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