Who Controls Crime Policy? Part Deux

Responding to an earlier post of mine about elite control of criminal justice policy in Germany, Information Unlimited, which is written by David Picón Álvarez, had this to say:

Lay citizens don’t go to the ISO meetings either, or to the WTO negotiations, or to so many other things, and pretending they might have something intelligent to say about either of those things–including criminal justice–is at best extreme naïvity and at worst populism.

…So, this is the question to the blogger and to those who agree with him: if not the Elite–if not those who are qualified by virtue of their knowledge of the matter–then who is to steer the Polis?

There may be a misunderstanding here. As an armchair social scientist, I try to adopt some of the habits of a real social scientist. I try to stay on a fairly high analytical level, and not let my private opinions show too terribly much.

Thus, the point of the previous post was not to suggest that elite control of criminal justice policy was either a good or bad thing, but to observe that the elite, in European countries, doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of justifying their control over this area of policy-making. These justification problems, in turn, cause embarrassing gaps between rhetoric and reality; such as when EU politicians condemn Saddam Hussein’s execution in the name of an abstract political entity, rather than in the name of a majority of the population in their home nations.

Information Unlimited’s point about elite control over policy-making is well-taken in general, but there’s a significant difference between the examples he states (ISO and WTO proceedings, for instance), and criminal-justice policy. As some of the comments you can read on this blog make clear, it’s hard to convince ordinary citizens that criminal justice policy should be controlled by elites. Unlike WTO proceedings, crimes attract continuous, high-profile press coverage and arouse strong passions.

Crimes arouse passions because they violate what Durkeim called the conscience collective, the fundamental collective moral intuitions of society. It is a direct, passionate experience: "Punishment, thus, remains for us what it was for our fathers. It is still an act of vengeance since it is an expiation. What we avenge, what the criminal expiates, is the outrage to morality."

Thus, plenty of reasonable people will admit they haven’t the faintest idea what European monetary policy should be, or which issues should dominate Germany’s policy towards Botswana. However, everybody has strong opinions on what to do about the child-molester on the front page of the daily tabloid. Experience shows it’s nearly impossible to change these passionnate emotional reactions. Thus, it’s actually hard for European elites to maintain exclusive control of criminal-justice policy — they have to keep devising new and convincing rhetorical justifications to satisfy their public that their lenient policies serve the public safety.

Now I will stop being coy, and out myself. I have no problem with the fact that European criminal-justice policy is made principally by elites. Not because I love elites so much, but because they are doing a good job, in international comparison. European societies are some of the safest on earth. Germany is a particularly safe place to live. Crime rates in Germany are stable, and many have declined (G) in recent years. Of course, there are hundreds of factors that explain this, including an aging population. However, it can be said with certainty that the fact that Germany’s lenient criminal-justice policy is not triggering large increases in serious violent crime.

The paradigmatic nation in which the average citizen does control criminal-justice policy is, of course, the United States. In no other developed nation could the citizens of a state, for instance, reinstate the death penalty by direct public referendum. Further, virtually all local prosecutors are elected directly by the public, as are judges in about half of the states in the U.S.

When the U.S. public wants harsher penalties, therefore, it gets them. The result can be seen in the following chart showing developments in the American prison population, courtesy of The Sentencing Project:

Incarceration_rate_in_us_1

The United States now has the world’s highest incarceration rate by a huge margin (the second is Russia). Yet it also has much higher violent-crime rates than Western Europe.

Citizen control over policy-making largely explains these developments. Simply put, Joe Sixpack thinks that locking up more people for longer periods of time is the most effective way to make him safer. On this particular point, Joe Sixpack is wrong. He’s wrong because he’s ignorant, and he’s, unfortunately, ignorant about many other things as well. (Percent of Americans who knew the Republican Party controlled the House of Representatives in 2002: 32. Percent of Americans who knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO in 1964: 38).

However, Joe Sixpack’s elected representatives listen to him nonetheless, and try to please him by enacting ever-harsher punishments. Now, let me say that this situation will correct itself: Americans seem to have awakened from their orgy of incarceration with second thoughts. As Winston Churchill once said, you can always count on America to do the right thing, after it’s exhausted all the other options. But the human cost, in the meantime, has been enormous.

This is why I’m interested in the question whether European policy elites will be able to resist pressure to permit direct citizen control over criminal-justice policy making. I want them to succeed, but I’m not always sure they’re on the right track.

14 thoughts on “Who Controls Crime Policy? Part Deux

  1. Maybe a special form of Plutocracy, not based on wealth but on knowledge, would be an answer.
    People would have to make a voting license every 8-10 years, just to be sure
    they know what they are doing.
    One problem though, who construts the questions without being biased.

  2. I don’t think the people would make a harsh policy. Some polititians are already working on that. Fortunately they don’t succed much. But there is definitly a trend towards harsher criminal justice policy.

    On the other hand. Germany is a republic and in such state the people usually elect others to make informed decisions. Because 80 mio people can’t possibly have any qualified opinion about sentencing or healthcare or economic policy. When it comes to local matters I strongly believe in the referendum, for “makro-decisions” I like some elites with education and not germany’s equivalent of Joe Sixpack. (lets say Ditsche 🙂

  3. Two very interesting posts.

    On the one hand I agree that there is a legitimacy problem (disconnect between voters and policy elite). On the other hand, I don’t think it is a major problem, because right-wing parties have not benefited that much in the last 20 years or so (No LePen or Haider in Germany), although various scientists, journalists, and politicians have been concerned about his disconnect for many years.

    In the past the crime rate was higher than it is today. Thus this disconnect between voters and policy elite should have been more important in the past, when crime was a bigger problem than today.
    Though, many Germans don’t know that most crime rates have fallen. They feel more insecure today.
    http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1617212,00.html
    Likewise some Germans, who live in areas with hardly any foreigners, are more xenophobic than others who actually meet foreigners.

    According to one FES survey an iron-fisted leader who would “govern Germany for the benefit of all” would be supported by 15 percent of the respondents. One in four — 26 percent — said they favored a single party in Germany “that would embody the national community as a whole.”
    http://atlanticreview.org/archives/483-Bad-News-from-Germany.html

    Still these right-wing views have not translated into significant increase in votes for right-wing parties. Though it is always important to be concerned about the potential of such a rise in Germany.

    “This is why I’m interested in the question whether European policy elites will be able to resist pressure to permit direct citizen control over criminal-justice policy making.”

    They resisted this pressure in the past, when crime rate was higher. Thus I am fairly optimistic.

    Stuff like this is always good for headlines in Bild and Spiegel, but such debates always end quickly without any changes:
    Justiz: Politiker wollen Adressen von Sex-Verbrechern ins Netz stellen – Politik – SPIEGEL ONLINE – Nachrichten
    “Politiker wollen Adressen von Sex-Verbrechern ins Netz stellen
    Politiker von SPD und CSU haben nach den jüngsten Morden eine schärfere Überwachung von Sexualstraftätern gefordert. Neueste Idee – nach dem Vorbild der USA: Namen, Bilder und Adressen der Täter sollen per Internet zugänglich gemacht werden.”
    http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,442265,00.html

    “I want them to succeed, but I’m not always sure they’re on the right track.”

    Why? What would be the right track?
    More Aufklärung about the low crime rate in Germany?
    The policy elite and media is often pointing out that the US system does not work. I guess it would help if Bild would qoute your blog “Citizen control over policy-making largely explains these developments. Simply put, Joe Sixpack thinks that locking up more people for longer periods of time is the most effective way to make him safer. On this particular point, Joe Sixpack is wrong.”

    Back to the legitimacy issue:
    “Thus, plenty of reasonable people will admit they haven’t the faintest idea what European monetary policy should be, or which issues should dominate Germany’s policy towards Botswana. However, everybody has strong opinions on what to do about the child-molester on the front page of tabloid,”

    Yes, but I am not so sure, if the difference is really *that* big. I think plenty of people have strong opinions on monetary policy and development aid (“waste of money”) or trade issues (“globalization is bad”). Most Germans were strongly against the Euro, incl. most “reasonable people.” Many folks are convinced that lower interests rates would be better etc.

    Like with all these issue, I don’t know for sure but I think many Germans had strong opinions about Bundesbank (Central Bank) policy. They blamed high interest for economic woes everytime there was a recession. This has never translated into serious calls for the Bundesbank to be under political control rather than being independent. (Well, I guess one exception was in the late 70s.) Usually people were content that the Bundesbank *produced better results* than (low inflation, decent economy, no boom and bust, ok exchange rates) than other countries (Italy, France etc in the old days). So, hopefully folks will be content that the current criminal justice system *produces acceptable results.*

    To quote Chancellor Helmut “die Birne” Kohl: Wichtig ist was hinten rauskommt. I don’t know how to translate that for a family friendly blog 😉

    Still, I think that Germany could learn some direct democracy from the United States and said so here:
    http://atlanticreview.org/archives/477-guide.html

    Rather than a referendum about punishment for bicycle theft, we should start with a referendum about how much of our taxes should be spend for operas, theaters, art museums and such nonsense compared to vital public services like schools, hospitals and libraries.
    The elite goes to operas and theaters. Otto Normalverbraucher and Karl Sixpack do not. Thus, the elite should pay for their entertainment themselves. I think such a referendum would prevent the disconnect between voters and elite from growing.

    Having a referendum concerning the EU constitution would be good as well.

  4. I read part one more carefully and realized that you think this conflict will grow because

    “Serious violent crime is still blessedly rare in Europe, but crime in general has been slowly increasing. Much of it is quality-of-life crime (vandalism, bicycle theft, smash-and-grab car robberies) that make ordinary people feel they’re losing control of their society.”

    Yes, many ordinary people feel less safe, but what is your source for stating that “crime in general has been slowly increasing”?

    Deutsche Welle wrote on 16.06.2005:
    “Between 1993 and 2003, the number of murders fell by 40.8 percent and domestic burglaries fell by 45.7 percent. All in all, crime in general dropped by 2.6 percent during the 10-year period. (…) While car theft rates actually shrank by 70.5 percent, people surveyed estimated they had increased by 47 percent. (…) Sexual murders dropped by 37.5 percent between 1993 and 2003, but the public estimated that they had increased by a full 260 percent.”
    http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1617212,00.html

    Is the increase you see in vandalism, bicycle theft, smash-and-grab car robberies really so bad, if car theft rates actually shrank by 70.5 percent and domestic burglaries fell by 45,7 percent?

    I guess, perception is everything. Both in Germany and the US, where the crime rates fell as well, contrary to people’s perception.

  5. I’m not sure that the Europeans or the US have the right of it, because I’m not sure there is a universal truth about crimes policy.

    The US is a younger society than Europe is – and that is strongly correlated with rates of all kinds of crime including violent crime.

    At the same time I think ‘if it isn’t broken, why change it?’. If German crime policy really is working why should Germany change it?

    But what may be happening is that beaurecrats are fixing the numbers to make themselves look better – that seems to happen in all societies. In that case there will be a disconnect between the glowing statistics and what the citizenry see in their own lives.

    I don’t have a valid opinion on whether this is happening in Europe – how could I? I don’t live there. This is an issue which people need to decide for themself.

    In the US what happened is that we built bigger jails during the 1decade of the 1990’s – and crime rates fell. It seemed to be cause and effect – but was it? ‘Freaknomics’, an interesting and provocative book published in 2004 proposed a theory that the actual cause of drop in US crime rates during the 1990s may have been the result of the legalisation of abortion following the ‘Roe vs Wade’ decision in 1973. It’s an interesting theory but I don’t believe it has been studied with any rigor.

    One last thought: It is perfectly possible that some things which work in Europe do not work so well in the US – and vice versa. Or even that things which work in Germany may not work well in the UK or Greece.

  6. @ Don

    But what may be happening is that beaurecrats are fixing the numbers to make themselves look better – that seems to happen in all societies. In that case there will be a disconnect between the glowing statistics and what the citizenry see in their own lives.

    Sure, could be, but I think the media is “fixing the numbers” in Karl Sixpack’s perception of crime much more with their sensational coverage.

    In the US what happened is that we built bigger jails during the 1decade of the 1990’s – and crime rates fell. It seemed to be cause and effect – but was it?

    According to Andrew’s graphic the extra-ordinary growth in the incarceration rate began already in the early 80s.
    But you are right, crime rates fell in the 90s. Due to the economic boom? (Don’t worry, I am not giving Clinton credit for it 😉 Don) Crime rates increased last year again…
    Andrew wrote: “Joe Sixpack thinks that locking up more people for longer periods of time is the most effective way to make him safer. On this particular point, Joe Sixpack is wrong.”
    What would be the most effective way for the US?
    I’d love to see you guys continue the debate…

  7. Andrew,

    I think some aspects are already missing…

    Death Penalty: The ban of death penalty in Europe and Germany isn’t an abstract political entity. Together with the torture ban it’s a hard-earned European core value and a normative element of our democratic self-image because of the terrible experiences with political regimes that used the death penalty to eliminate dissidents. There were some political debates in the 1950’s, 1960’s and during the RAF terror in the 1970’s in Germany without any challenge to this political consent. It’s part of the European Human Rights Convention and part of the European Constitution. Turkey has banned the death penalty because they want to join the EU. In Germany, it’s part of the “holy” Basic Law (Art. 102 GG: “Die Todesstrafe ist abgeschafft”) and a lot of jurists argue that because of Art. 1 Abs. 1 GG (the first and fundamental articles of the Basic Law aren’t changeable – Ewigkeitsklausel) it’s even with a hypothetical two thirds majority not possible to establish the death penalty. These are the institutional settings.

    For historical reasons and because of the federal structure without any legal meaning, constitutions of some Bundesländer contain the possibility of a death penalty. On the 8th February 1998, as the result of a referendum (!) in Bavaria (!!), the passage mentioning death penalty in the Bavarian constitution was removed.

    In short: Political debates about the death penalty are a complete waste of time. Therefore, they didn’t take place.

    The execution of Saddam Hussein is a rather exceptional case with a butcher who committed mass murder without any doubt, the perspective of an endless series of trials, a judicial system that is still developing its self-confidence and – that’s IMHO the crucial point – a very, very instable government facing the danger of a civil war. In this extreme situation and from a purely pragmatic point of view, some will argue that the execution was the lesser of the two evils.

    Spiegel Online has an article, “Saddam No “Cause Celebre” for Death Penalty Opponents”, about the German media reaction: “Executing Saddam Hussein will do nothing to end the chaos in Iraq, write German commentators. But it’s a bad idea to cite his killing as an argument against the death penalty, says one paper. China is a more suitable example with its frequent executions. And what about Saudi Arabia and Iran, which kill people for being gay or committing adultery?”
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,457367,00.html

    So much for hypocrisy.

    As far as I know US opinion polls, for decades a clear majority of US citizens want both evolution and creationism as part of the curriculum in public schools. For decades a majority of US citizens also reject evolution. From the Scopes “Monkey” trial in 1925 to the “Panda” Dover trial in 2005, the debate about evolution and creationism (or “Intelligent Design”) engaged courts. Is there elite control of educational policy in the US? In secular Germany there’s voluntary religious education in every public school, beginning with the first day at school. Why isn’t there a direct public referendum in the US where voters decide if they also want religious education in public schools? Simply because the First Amendment prohibits such an education.

    This is why I’m interested in the question whether US policy elites will be able to resist pressure to permit direct citizen control over educational and science policy making…

  8. “As far as I know US opinion polls, for decades a clear majority of US citizens want both evolution and creationism as part of the curriculum in public schools.”

    Uh, no. There are a few (a very few) districts which have mandated equal teaching of evolutionism and creationism in that particular district. In other places a pro-creationism school board has gained power and put creationism into the curriculum only to be removed by angry parents in the next election and the curriculum changed back.

    In the vast majority of the US there is no majority support for creationism – not even close to it.

  9. @ abec

    “Why isn’t there a direct public referendum in the US where voters decide if they also want religious education in public schools? Simply because the First Amendment prohibits such an education.
    This is why I’m interested in the question whether US policy elites will be able to resist pressure to permit direct citizen control over educational and science policy making…”

    Interesting question…

    @ Don
    “In the vast majority of the US there is no majority support for creationism – not even close to it.”

    PEW Poll from July 2006: 58% of Americans are in favor of teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools.
    This and more polls at: http://www.pollingreport.com/science.htm

    Differences Bush and Kerry voters:
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/22/opinion/polls/main657083.shtml

  10. Joerg, in my opinion those polls are glitched. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1091350

    They also don’t take into account a third POV, that of Intelligent Design. ID has it’s own problems in that it tends to be an inconsistent (and unproven) grab-bag of theories. Hardcore creationists have seized upon it as a synonym for creationism because it *sounds* better.

    But it seems to be a fact that Darwinian Evolution rigorously accounts for between 35% and 65% of what we see in the fossil record, depending on what one is talking about. Or so I have been assured.

    If one adds together hardcore creationists and people who think one ore more of the various theories comprising ID and label that ‘creationist’ then you might reach the figures those polls show. Not otherwise, I think.

    What do I think? I think that Darwin has the best answer to date; but not a complete one. There is a lot more work to be done. 4000-year ‘Biblical’ creationism is arrant nonsense. And there might be something in some of the various theories of ID although so much of it is half-baked that it’s hard to put much credence in any particular theory. So Darwin remains the ‘gold standard’ of theories but not the complete truth.

    Such narrow differences ard hard to capture in opinion polls – particularly opinion polls designed to show that the majority of Americans are cud-chewing yokels.

  11. It is notable that creationism as a theory does have at least some support in American society. What is quite striking is that there aren’t any significant comparable “movements” in European countries (or are there? If so, please let me know). I am far from judging those people supporting it, but it would be quite interesting to know some of the reasons for this discrepancy between Europe and the US.

  12. “in my opinion those polls are glitched.”

    Why?

    Your link is about statistics in general, not about “those polls.”

    If you don’t trust polls in general, then I wonder why you made this authoritative statement like this: “In the vast majority of the US there is no majority support for creationism – not even close to it.”

  13. The link was to the three kinds of falsehoods which Mark Train cited: ‘Lies, Damn lies, and statistics’. A ‘opinion survey’ can be designed to obtain results which range from merely misleading to a complete lie. In this case I think the results tend townard misleading because there really are a lot of people who believe in creationism. But not that many.
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