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CRIMEWARPS: The Future of Crime in America by Georgette Bennett (Anchor/Doubleday: $19.95; 423 pp.)

April 05, 1987|Elliott Currie | Currie is the author of "Confronting Crime: An American Challenge" (Pantheon).

A"Crimewarp," according to Georgette Bennett, is a contemporary trend that will shape the patterns of crime Americans can expect to face in the future. The questions Bennett, a journalist and sociologist, raises are surely important, for the recent trends in crime have been both disturbing and perplexing. After a lull in the early '80s, violent crime rates have been rising again in most of the country, despite the unprecedented numbers of people we've been putting behind bars. California's prison population has tripled in less than a decade, but the homicide rate in Los Angeles last year was higher than the year before, and Oakland racked up more murders than ever before in its dismayingly violent history.

Bennett's look at the future of crime is therefore timely, but on the whole, despite some useful insights, it is not a reliable guide.

Part of the problem is that Bennett simply takes on too much at once. "Crimewarps" tries to cover everything: both street crime and white-collar crime; drug abuse and pornography; the police, courts, and prisons; homosexuality, prostitution, and gambling; even the rise of fundamentalist Christianity. The result is that we learn less than we'd need to know about some things whose connection with crime isn't always easy to discern.

Sometimes, too, Bennett mixes arguments based on solid research with others that are disturbingly far-fetched and too often based on minimal evidence. One of the most troubling examples appears in a chapter on "Prisons Without Walls," where Bennett tells us that "in the future, we will rely less on external prison controls to thwart criminals and more on internal biochemical controls." These include everything from diet to "gene therapy," from "surgical castration" to genetic screening for chromosomal abnormalities. Future offenders will also be fitted with "surgically implanted, nuclear-powered electronic tracking devices." But does Bennett really think that all this should be taken seriously--that we can, for example, really screen out potential thieves by giving out electroencephalographs to detect "slowed alpha wave activity"? And should we be doing this, even if we could?

Moreover, Bennett's predictions often stray uncomfortably far from the evidence, even her own. On the whole, the tone of "Crimewarps" is optimistic. Bennett thinks street crime will be rarer in the future than it is now, largely because the more crime-prone young will decline as a proportion of the population. She also thinks drug use will decline, at least among the poor. (On the other hand, she expects white-collar crimes to rise, especially because of the vulnerability of a highly technological society to computer fraud and other crimes committed by the smart and middle class.) I'd like to believe this, but the scenario seems, by Bennett's own account, to be more complicated--and more dependent on what we do about the trends she's pointed out. The proportion of youth will indeed fall, but as Bennett points out, it will fall less among crime-prone disadvantaged groups. She thinks that the rise of the "service" economy will give these youth "a stake in the system and its laws," but both her own data and that of much recent research show that the "masses of entry-level, low-skill jobs" in the emerging service economy haven't relieved the problem of youth joblessness in the inner cities, or its consequences.

Bennett titles her chapter on drug abuse "The Demise of Drugs," but neither her own data nor more recent research supports that comfortingly exaggerated view. The declines in youthful drug use on which she pins large hopes are real enough for some drugs, mainly marijuana, but cocaine abuse is rising, even in the surveys she cites, which almost certainly understate the problem because they don't sample the really hard-core kids in the inner cities--where drug-related violence is rising, not falling.

Whether these problems will get better or worse will depend on how seriously we tackle their sources. But Bennett has much too little to say about what we might do , instead too often treating her "warps" in isolation from any coherent approach to social policy. But a society is a human construction, not just an assemblage of trends, and if we want a society that's less fearful, less drug-soaked, less destructive of lives and social peace, we'll have to make some tough and better-informed decisions about our economic and social priorities.

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