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PaulsJusticePage > Reiman, The Rich Get Richer > Ch 1 Summary     Ch 1 Exercises>     [Buy the book ~ eBook]

Ch 1: Crime Control in America - Nothings Succeeds Like Failure

Regardless of fluctuations in the crime rate, the Rich Get Richer's thesis has been validated through nine editions of the book and more than 30 year in print: the rich continue to get richer and there is an expanding number of poor people in prison. Chapter 1 starts the investigation by 1) discussing America’s high crime rate, 2) reviewing the ‘excuses’ we make for the crime rate 3) introducing sources of crime, and 4) outlining the pyrrhic defeat theory to explain the continued failure of policies to reduce crime.


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1. America’s high crime rate

Although crime has declined in recent years, the US still has a substantially higher rate of crime than other Western industrial democracies. More specifically, the U.S. has a much higher rate of lethal violence in the form of homicide compared to European countries (some of which have high levels of theft and property crime). Rich Get Richer' argues that even though violent crime has declined, little of it has to do with government policies such as ‘tough on crime’ laws that incarcerate more people for longer or because of community policing. The evidence is that many states or cities that did not implement these changes also experienced declines in crime. Indeed, Canada has also experienced decreases in crime without adopting similar policies, which suggests the decline has to do with the economy, changing markets for crack cocaine and demographics (the number of young people). 

The ‘imprisonment binge’ in the United States might have accounted for some small changes in crime, but there are also fears from criminologists that the ‘war on crime’ has eroded the rights of citizens (especially minorities – see the discussion of driving while black in Chapter 3). It has also spawned a criminal justice – industrial complex that makes policy more on the basis of profit than public safety (this is also discussed more in Chapter 3’s Narrative and Exercises). [See recommended readings at bottom of page for more sources of information]

See What Every American Should Know About Criminal Justice. 

Read the report on incarceration trends by the American Society of Criminology's National Policy Committee.  

"Why is Crime Falling" by Alfred Blumstein, NIJ Perspectives on Crime & Justice (Blumstein summarizes his book on the same topic)

2. 'Excuses' for High Crime Rates

Reiman next reviews what he calls ‘excuses’ for the high rate of crime and violence in the U.S. He explains the excuse, but he ultimately argues against the validity of these excuses; in other words, he thinks they are false reasons for our high crime rate.

A.  We’re too soft. The U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Even when our higher crime rate is figured in, we are at least as likely as other countries to impose a prison sentence, and it is not likely to be more lenient than other countries. The last 30 years has seen increased use of mandatory sentence and increasingly harsher sentences.

B.  Modern life. Other highly industrialized countries in the world have lower crime rates. There are also striking differences within the U.S. with respect to the amount of crime and violence. This variation does not depend on the size of the city or the population density (population per square mile)

C.  Youth. Young people are more likely to commit crimes, especially violent ones, and a well know phenomenon in criminology is the maturation effect (people ‘age out’ of crime). But changes in the amount of crime are not only dependent on the size of the youth population.

D.  We don’t know. Criminologists know that that the criminal justice system can do little to impact crime rates. It responds to crime after it occurs, and most criminals do not believe they will be caught, so harsher sentences have little impact. Research points to a wide variety of factors that produce crime (including the sources of crime discussed below) and a number of important interventions (but few concern the police, courts or prisons – read the quote from FBI Director Freeh). 

For further information why declining crime rates are not related to ‘get tough,’ see 

Stop Violence Project has links to ideas for reducing many types of violence, including youth and teen violence. 

For a more systematic assessment of the failures in criminal justice, see Justice Blind

3. 'Sources' of Crime

The Rich Get Richer discusses ‘sources’ rather than ‘causes.’ The ‘source’ is less specific than a more immediate ‘cause,’ but we feel that the following ‘sources’ are important in producing crime, even if the exact mechanisms are not known: 

A. Inequality (including unemployment and poverty). 

The concept underlying of many ideas in this section is relative deprivation, which is the difference between the rich and the poor. Books on theories of crime contain a section on strain theory, which hypothesizes that crime is the result of an overemphasis on material success and too few legitimate opportunities to achieve it. The idea of Crime and the American Dream is that the ideas of success depicted in the mass media encourage ever greater levels of consumption (there’s always something bigger, better or newer), which can be a source of crime for both poor and the wealthy.

B. The conditions of prison and our overuse of it

Putting people in overcrowded warehouse-style prisons do not encourage pro-social behavior. Prisons have few programs to help inmates be better people when they get out and give them skills or opportunities to avoid returning to a life of crime. The overuse of prison hurts communities and families from which minor offenders come.

C. Guns (especially handguns)

The current stock of 200 million guns and the relative ease of obtaining one adds to the high level of lethal violence.

D. Current drug policy

The effects of drugs on crime can be broken down into several categories. (i) the pharmacological effect is the effect of the drug that reduces inhibitions or stimulates other activity, (ii) economic crime: is stimulated by the need for money to buy drugs, so the higher the price of the drug, the greater the incentive to commit the crime or engage in exchanges like prostitution, (iii) systemic crime is violence caused by the lack of access to the civil system for dispute resolution and corruption of police because of the big money in drugs.


For more information on why prison conditions can make inmates worse, see Stop Prison Rape or some of the prison survival guides.

Paul's TEDxEMU talk: Thoughts from a Day in a Japanese Prison  

The drug legalization debate is also topic of Leighton & Reiman’s Criminal Justice Ethics

4. Pyrrhic defeat

The idea of a pyrrhic victory comes from a military campaign that achieves its objective (say, taking a certain bit of land), but does so at such a high cost (lives and supplies) that the campaign should be considered a failure. The Rich Get Richer turns this around and uses the notion of a pyrrhic defeat to describe a situation where vast resources are spent to secure an objective (reducing crime), but this failure is really a success. The failure results in a persistent high level of street crime, which is a ‘victory’ for the wealthy and for corporate America who are not seen as being part of the ‘crime problem’; they remain free to keep perpetrating a variety of harms on people. (The nature and extent of these crimes are discussed in Chapter 2; the explanation of why this is not a conspiracy theory is in Chapter 4). 

The pyrrhic defeat theory is built upon the work of several theorists: (A) Durkheim noted that all communities have deviance, and that deviants were functional in promoting social solidarity by providing an ‘out’ group that helped form an ‘in’ group. (B) Erickson built on Durkheim by suggesting that if deviance is functional, then perhaps communities encourage, promote and recruit deviance. The Rich Get Richer acknowledges a debt to their insight that society can promote behavior it also desires to eliminate. We go further, however, by questioning their consensus assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal,’ ‘deviant,’ and ‘criminal’ behavior.  Chapter Two argues that our notions of ‘crime’ are socially constructed and explores Quinney’s theories about the social reality of crime. The argument is that what we think of as ‘crime’ does not include the worst harms that might befall us (and wrongdoing by the wealthy is generally excluded from definitions of crime). The Rich Get Richer also borrows insights from Marx about ideology to examine further the belief that what we call crime is a direct reflection of the worst threats to our well-being. 

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