Four decades ago, I was a serial crime victim. It was the beginning of a long and varied engagement with America’s long and circuitous debate over crime.

That debate is taking another turn just now, into the thick of the Democratic presidential nomination battle, as challengers to front-runner Joe Biden — especially New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — level charges that the veteran policymaker was “an architect of mass incarceration” a generation ago.

The role he played kindling this “raging crisis” discredits Biden’s recent proposals for criminal-justice reform and his admissions that some of yesteryear’s policies were mistaken, Booker insists.

A few reflections on how we got here may be useful.

After personally encountering a previous “raging crisis” — America’s great, post-1960s crime epidemic — I covered as a journalist the sweeping political crackdown on crime of the late 1980s and 1990s. That era brought us mandatory minimums and three-strike laws and life-without-parole sentences and beefed-up police forces and post-prison sex-offender “treatment” programs, and much else that has contributed to soaring numbers of offenders behind bars.

A vast bipartisan consensus at state, local and federal levels worked on that crackdown architecture. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats in both houses of Congress voted for the 1994 “Clinton crime bill” Biden is being blamed for.

More recently, over the past few years, I’ve found myself covering a backlash against that anti-crime backlash. Today, politicians everywhere — with rare bipartisan unanimity and confidence reminiscent of the earlier throw-away-the-key consensus — decry the “systemic racism” and fundamental injustice of mass incarceration and propose sweeping policy transformations to reverse it. We hear echoes of it here in Minneapolis, in resistance to hiring more cops despite signs of a growing need.

It’s a remarkable turnabout. Let’s just hope we won’t have to go all the way around full circle — back to the way things were in days that apparently have been largely forgotten — at least by people who didn’t live in crime-wave neighborhoods years ago.

In 1976, I bought and moved into a duplex in a close-in section of south Minneapolis. I lived there eight years, mostly happily, despite numerous painful days in a neighborhood then in deepening trouble.

My wife of the time was raped at knifepoint in our home. I was robbed at knifepoint on the street. The apartment was burglarized twice. My car was stolen. Neighbors suffered similarly, some worse. Two nearby corner grocers were brutalized by robbers; one (named Roger) was shot dead.

There was more, but you get the picture. What’s important is that it was a familiar picture painted in blood across America in those years.

According to FBI data, the violent crime rate in America nearly quintupled over 30 years, from 161 (per 100,000) in 1960 to a peak of almost 760 in 1991.

In “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America,” criminologist Barry Latzer reports that if the crime rates of 1975-84 had become permanent more than 80% of Americans would be victimized by at least one violent crime in their lifetimes. “The frequency of violent confrontations between 1970 and 1990,” he writes, “reached the point where the word terrifying was not inapt.”

In Minnesota, awareness of the earlier raging crisis may have peaked in the mid-1990s, when East Coast media wags dubbed our largest city “Murderapolis” amid a wave of gang turf wars.

By then, though, crime rates had actually peaked and begun sharply to fall. Rates have flattened in recent years, even risen a bit, but they remain far, far below their terrifying peaks. That’s why mass incarceration has come to be seen as a bigger issue — and decrying it more surefire politics — than fighting crime. And it’s why so many politicians, especially Democrats, find themselves joining Biden in apologizing for their positions on crime a generation ago.

It’s almost refreshing to see our proud leadership class reluctant, this once, to claim credit for a fortunate social trend. It’s not clear how much get-tough policies contributed to reducing crime, while the harms to individuals and communities have been deep and lasting. And in a bitter irony, mass incarceration has disproportionately victimized African-Americans and other minorities — just as the great crime wave itself did.

But genuine humility would counsel caution as we launch the next sweeping round of crime policy transformations. It’s unsettling to hear today’s brilliant policymakers pronounce so confidently that all the brilliant policymakers were dead-wrong a generation ago. They were supremely sure of themselves then, too.

One thing that’s become clear from America’s wild ride on crime is that we don’t really know why crime soared, or why it fell. Latzer says the baby boom-fueled surging population of young males (who always and everywhere commit most violent crime) had a lot to do with the wave of violence, which for years overwhelmed the criminal-justice system, making crime even more alluring.

As for the “great downturn” in crime, Latzer says it’s a “lesson in humility” for criminologists. He argues that much of the decline, like much of previous rise, followed the waxing and waning of the crack-cocaine epidemic and elusive cultural changes in attitudes.

But he also argues that more police and tougher sentencing policies contributed, “whatever the negative consequences,” even if more incarceration “was not the only, perhaps not even the major, reason for the decline.”

Researchers differ on this, but many agree the crackdown was a case of “diminishing returns.” In the early years, tougher policies took the most hardened criminals off the streets, preventing a lot of future crime, but over time many less “deserving” offenders were swept up in the harsher system.

Encouragingly, there are some signs that mass incarceration has already begun to recede, rather as crime did, even before the politicians enact their most ambitious solutions. Modest reforms, including eased mandatory sentencing rules, have been enacted at both the state and federal levels, including in the First Step Act authored by Booker and signed into law by President Donald Trump last December.

Whatever the cause, new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that the U.S. imprisonment rate fell by nearly 13% from 2007-2017. Among blacks it fell almost 31%.

This is a welcome trend that policymakers should build on. But Latzer’s “lesson in humility” should be taken to heart. There are still too many neighborhoods plagued by too much crime. We need balanced crime policy, not continued lurching from one raging crisis to another.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.