America is facing many threats, they aren’t the ones that we commonly identify as the biggest threats but, the reality is that these issues are at the core of many things happening in our country today. There has been much debate surrounding gun control in our country, but it does not address the larger issue of violent crime in the United States in general. We are basing our argument on the tool used to orchestrate the offense instead of focusing on the real societal issue. This is not a pro-firearm discussion nor is it anti-firearm, this is to point out the larger issue of violence in the US.
If we look at our nation’s crime statistics, which have decreased over the last ten years according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2013 crime statistics (FBI 2013 Violent Crime Statistics), we will see that in 2011 the number of violent offenses was 1,206,005 and according to the Bureau of Justice that 478,400 of the violent crimes committed involved firearms, but more importantly both reporting agencies have shown a decline in both violent crime and firearm based offenses over the last ten years. Which does indicate that current measures are having some impact on violent crime in the United States. But, without the 2015 data being available yet we will have to wait to see if the trend continues. So, the real question remains “why do we still have so much violent crime?”, to answer this we will have to look at the circumstances surrounding violence and what impact it has on violence.
Crime and Education: How Education Reduces Crime
This is not a discussion centered on education, but more to the effect of how education affects crime rates in the United States. According to Columbia University “Increasing the high school completion rate by just 1 percent for all men ages 20-60 would save the U.S. up to $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime.” and “A one-year increase in average years of schooling reduces murder and assault by almost 30%, motor vehicle theft by 20%, arson by 13% and burglary and larceny by about 6%” (tc.columbia.edu). The connection between education and crime has been long understood, it does not eliminate crime but, by allowing access to more opportunities, education does reduce criminal activity. The majority of the education budget does go to elementary and secondary education, according to The US Department of Education. US education system performing better statistically, according to The Institute of Education Sciences in 2012, the average graduation rate was 81% versus 74% in 1990. These numbers correlate with the violent crime statistics drop, as graduation rates increased the crime rates also decreased. Education is a very important factor affecting crime rates in the US. According to Lochner and Moretti
“There are a number of reasons to believe that education will affect subsequent crime. First, schooling increases the returns to legitimate work, raising the opportunity costs of illicit behavior.2 Additionally, punishment for crime typically entails incarceration. By raising wage rates, schooling makes this ‘lost time’ more costly. Second, education may directly affect the financial or psychic rewards from crime itself. Finally, schooling may alter preferences in indirect ways, which may affect decisions to engage in crime.” Lochner and Moretti
We can see that education does impact crime in a variety of ways and our continued focus on increasing access to education and supporting continuing education for students is important if we would like to see a continual decrease in criminal activity in the United States. The US educational system is currently facing issues that need to be addressed, but this is not the forum to address those issues.
Crime and Poverty: How Crime Creates Poverty and Vice Versa
The link between poverty and violent crime does exist beyond correlation to being a strong indicator of crime. Below are the numbers released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
What can be seen in the table above is that the violent crime rate for those in the poor category is more than twice the rate of high income category. When compared to the income statistics over the last ten years we find that there is a connection in the decrease in violent crime based on poverty levels that have increased over the last ten years, statistically, according to Census.gov:
This does not indicate that the major source of violence in the United States are those in the lower economic earning spectrum, instead it indicates the impact of economic stressors on these individuals and the likelihood of engagement in criminal activity. It is important to note that criminal activity persists across all income categories and that the issue is poverty’s impact on activity and not a statement that those living in poverty are criminals.
The relationship between poverty and crime is a factor that we need to be aware of when we discuss decreasing violent crime in the United States. It is also important to understand that we need to avoid racial labeling when discussing this issue. Because it is not an issue of race but, instead an issue of economic opportunity in our country and what can be done to create more jobs and financial security in the United States for everyone. This is not to say that the issue of sex and race are not tied to our economic inequality, but the bigger issue is the loss of jobs and rising cost of living in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we are currently seeing a decrease in unemployment after a spike between the years 2008-2011.
While these numbers do shine a light of hope on the issue of employment, they do not address the issue of financial stability and income earnings. Barely being able to make it from paycheck to paycheck is a major stress on individuals, the inability to maintain financial stability is still an issue despite favorable numbers of employment in the United States.
Violent Crime and Mental Ilness: A Misconstrued Connection
According to the American Psychological Association, mental illness is usually not linked to criminal activity.
“Researchers analyzed 429 crimes committed by 143 offenders with three major types of mental illness and found that 3 percent of their crimes were directly related to symptoms of major depression, 4 percent to symptoms of schizophrenia disorders and 10 percent to symptoms of bipolar disorder.”American Psychological Association
We find that the issue is in the way that these crimes are reported by news sources versus a connection to the particular individual’s mental illness. A lack of access to mental health and treatments or inability to follow prescribed treatments can have multiple effects on the overall financial stability and educational potential of an individual which would make them more likely to commit a criminal act, but that does not indicate that people whom suffer from mental illness are a major criminal threat to our society, despite the media reporting of dangerous mentally ill criminals. The APA found that:
“The study didn’t find any predictable patterns linking criminal conduct and mental illness symptoms over time. Two-thirds of the offenders who had committed crimes directly related to their mental illness symptoms also had committed unrelated crimes for other reasons, such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness and substance abuse, according to the research.” American Psychological Association
The evidence provided by the APA directly contradicts what many Americans think and according to University of Washington:
“A longitudinal study of American’s attitudes on mental health between 1950 and 1996 found, “the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled.” Also, the vast majority of Americans believe that persons with mental illnesses pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves (Pescosolido, et al., 1996, Pescosolido et al., 1999).” University of Washington
This fallacy has been perpetuated by the news media which depict individuals suffering from mental illness as evil or dangerous.
“”The vast majority of news stories on mental illness either focus on other negative characteristics related to people with the disorder (e.g., unpredictability and unsociability) or on medical treatments. Notably absent are positive stories that highlight recovery of many persons with even the most serious of mental illnesses” (Wahl, et al., 2002).” University of Washington
A better understanding of mental health in general would benefit Americans in understanding that mental illness is not that taboo nor is it the boogey man hiding beneath surface of our society. Now there is a link between overall societal mental wellness (e.i. societal stress levels) which are fueled by fear, racial tensions, religious fanaticism, and politics. According to the Global Peace Project:
“According to research, pervasive stress on a societal scale also correlates with higher crime, including homicide, aggravated assault, rape, and robbery1—and contributes to the outbreak of war, terrorism, and other social violence.2” and “According to prevailing theories in the field of conflict management,3 the first stage in the emergence of war is mounting stress—political, ethnic, and religious tensions. Such social stress, if unchecked, erupts as violent conflict or war. When such societal tensions run deep, history confirms that diplomatic efforts, negotiated settlements, and ceasefires produce fleeting results and provide no stable basis for lasting peace.” The Global Peace Project this is supported by research that has been featured in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality and Social Indicators Research. I wanted to highlight this area specifically because it should resonate with all cultures worldwide. But, it is central to many conflicts that are currently happening in our country. This is not to detract from the current issues facing other countries that are engaged in conflicts and political strife.
Crime and Substance Use: Legal Does Not Mean Less Dangerous
Many Americans are realizing now that marijuana is not as dangerous as it was stated to be, especially in light of the crime statistics coming out of Colorado after two years of legalization. Something that isn’t being said is that we have a substance in our society which is perfectly legal that has a major connection to violent crime, Alcohol. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency:
“Alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes today, and according to the Department of Justice, 37% of almost 2 million convicted offenders currently in jail, report that they were drinking at the time of their arrest.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency
This accounts for around 740,00 violent crimes that were associated with alcohol usage at the time the crime was committed. That is a large number of crimes that could have been addressed by better education about alcohol use and the dangers of over consumption. The NCADD also reported that:
“preventing future crime and re-arrest after discharge is impossible without treatment of addiction. Approximately 95% of inmates return to alcohol and drug use after release from prison, and 60 – 80% of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-driven crime) after release from prison.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency
To address other drug use and violent crime I will reference Parker & Auerhahn:
“At present, no compelling evidence exists to support an association between vio- lence and amphetamines, Phencyclidine/Ketamine, or heroin. While there is some evidence that some of these drugs may induce psychosis, this reaction is exceedingly rare; virtually all research on this phenomenon consists of case studies, making it impossible to even estimate the frequency of such reactions in the population.” a full citation and reading available here: Parker & Auerhanh Via UNLV.edu despite the dating on this article the current research has yet to disconfirm these findings.
We do have a declining rate of violence in the United States, this is evident by the statistics published by multiple government agencies. The bigger issue we face is that many Americans are unaware of why we have violent crime and the real factors that are associated with violent crime in the United States. While the above is not a complete work of all factors linked to violent crime, it is a good starting point for us to educate ourselves about larger issues in our society. We need to continue increasing educational success rates for Americans, this is one of the greatest deterrents of both criminal activity and violent crime – we should make education financially affordable and increase access to education across the United State. We need to repair our economy, while I have no simple solution for this (I am not an economist), I do know that financial stability and quality of life play a role in the prevention of crime and violence as well. A major issue that needs to continually addressed is the poverty rate in our country created by a lack of access to stable income, a lack of access to a livable wage, and a lack of financial education in our country. If we can address these financial/economic factors effectively we will see a decrease in crime and violence. We cannot continue to shine a negative light on mental illness and blame violent crime on mental illness, there is no evidence that supports the forward claim that the mentally ill are overwhelmingly involved in violent or criminal acts, that are strictly caused by mental illness and not by compounding factors associated with untreated mental illness such as poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse. All Americans can benefit from a better understanding of mental illness and increased access to mental healthcare. The war on drugs is a hot button issue, substance abuse has taken many lives and destroyed many others, the greatest tragedy is the fact that this is a preventable on some level. Many will argue for the legality of various substances and just as many will argue against it. The simplest answer is better substance education, increased funding for rehabilitation and substance abuse prevention, increased awareness about the dangers of substance addiction, and treatment of alcohol in the same manner as tobacco, we need to stop portraying alcohol as a glamorous substance and start portraying it in a true light. I know many will disagree, but just as many understand the dangers of alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine, PCP, and other illicit substances (both in crime reduction and for the general health of members of our society). It is time to change the focus to the real issues we face and stop claiming that violence is caused by anything other than substances, a lack of financial stability, lack of education access and attainment, and political and socio-economic stressors.