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to the Red Feather Journal of

Postmodern Criminology

A Review by Timothy Mason: Elliott Currie on American Criminality

Elliott Currie is one of the better known of American criminologists.
For those who need labels, he is considered left of centre. He
has recently published:

'Crime and Punishment in America ; Why the Solutions to America's
Most Stubborn Social Crisis Have not Worked - and What Will"
(Henry Holt, 1998).

What follows is a review of that work.

The book is intended for a wide audience. It is a response to the
present conservative climate on matters criminological ; in particular
Currie rejects the increasing reliance on the prison as the main
recourse against crime, and offers a number of other solutions which,
he claims, can be shown to work.

Currie opens by reminding us that the numbers of prisoners held in the
USA has risen from less than 200,000 in 1971 to nearly 1.2 million in
1996 - a figure that does not take into account people held in local
jails. This means that, as a proportion of the population, the numbers
behind bars has quadrupled from around 110 per 100,000 through the 60s
to 427 per 100,000.

The expansion of the prison population came at a time when crime was,
says Currie, reaching epidemic proportions. Between 1987 and 1994, the
homicide death rate among American men aged 15 to 24 rose from
22/100,000 to 37. This may be compared with the UK, where, in 1994,
the figure was 1/100,000.
Although Currie makes it clear that is Afro-Americans who have been
most sorely victimized
(167/100,000 in 1993), he points out that white youths have also been
suffering - their
rate in the 1990s was roughly 6 times the rate for young Frenchmen -
and 20 times the rate for young Japanese males.

There has been a recent downturn in the violence, but this has
merely lead to a return to the rates of the early 90s - which were
already extraordinarily high by comparison with the figures for any
other industrialized country. Conservative criminologists have lead us
to believe that confinement and punishment are the only realistic
answers to American crime. If this is so, asks Currie, why is it that
higher rates of incarceration have had so little effect on crimes of
His answer is, in part, to point to the structure of US society,
which has undergone the fastest rise in income inequality in recent
history. This has precipitated millions of Americans into poverty - an
American child under 18 is half again as likely to be poor now as she
was 20 years earlier, and the time that she spends in poverty will
probably be longer. In most civilized countries, a safety net is provided which
enables the poor to maintain contact with the rest of society ; in the
USA, such public support as has existed has been repeatedly slashed
away. Monies have, in fact, been diverted from social services, such
as education, to prisons.

Those who promulgate the ‘prison myth' hold not only that
incarceration, by taking criminals out of circulation, and by
providing some element of dissuasion, actually works to cut down crime
; they also believe that other solutions of a more liberal nature have
been tried and found wanting. Rehabilitation and prevention were, it
is claimed, tried during the 60s, but when they were evaluated, were
shown to be a waste of time and money. ‘Nothing works', it was
concluded. Countering this pessimism, Currie argues that while many
attempts to intervene, ill-conceived and badly implemented, did not
succeed, others, when looked at closely, did do so, and that we are,
today, equipped with the knowledge that would enable us to tackle
crime with a reasonable degree of success. Currie looks at programs
that work under three headings.

The first of these is 'prevention'. He states that we now know enough
about this to target four priorities - these are : "preventing child
abuse and neglect, enhancing children's intellectual and social
development, providing support and guidance to vulnerable adolescents
and working intensively with juvenile offenders." Let's look at each
of these in turn.

There is good evidence, writes Currie, for a direct link between child
abuse and violent crime - and there is also good evidence that
programs based on home visiting by skilled outsiders can reduce such abuse.

He cites the Elmira program, under the direction of David Olds :
4% of the highest risk mothers in the program were confirmed to have
abused or neglected their children, as against 19% of the control group
during the two years the visits lasted.

15 years later, the rate for the experimental women was only half that
of the control group, so it was not simply the effect of greater surveillance.

Other similar programs have also had positive effects. Amongst these is the
Hawaii Healthy Start program, which works with a particularly high-risk population,
and which appears to have had considerable success in cutting down rates
of abuse. Currie admits that it is not clear why these programs have
positive effects, but notes that the visits should continue over an
extended period, should be comprehensive, and look to the links
between the family and the wider community ; the home visitor becomes
a resource for the poor family, helping them out in times of crisis,
and putting them in touch with other social agencies as the need

Secondly, the link between school failure and crime is
well-established. Programs that enhance school performance can also
serve to cut down the crime rate. Some of the better programs launched
in the 60s have been shown to have positive effects - which makes
Jensen's efforts to blame the children particularly lamentable. One
of these is the Perry project, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Children who
had gone through this pre-school (2 years) program were, when followed
up 27 years later far more likely to be literate, to be off
welfare and far less likely (1/5th) to have become chronic criminal
offenders than were members of the control group. This does not mean
that they stay out of prison - 19% of the program children had done
time, as against 22% of the control. Currie believes that this is
because, unlike what happens in Europe, these programs are isolated
moments within a grinding life of poverty that makes it difficult for
families to function as they could. It is a point to which we shall

The third priority is to invest in programs that work with vulnerable
adolescents. We should not, says Currie, take the pessimistic stance
of James Q. Wilson, and believe that by the age of three the child's
future path is set for the rest of his life. Thus, for example, the
Federal Jobs Corps has been shown to reduce violent crimes amongst
participants ‘to a significant extent'. Among more recent efforts, the
Quantum Opportunity Progam, operating in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia,
Saginaw and San Antonio, cut the number of arrests for participants to
half that of a control group, cut down on the number on welfare, and
raised the probability that they would go to college. Such programs
cannot succeed if all they offer is mentoring, warns Currie ; the aid
given must be concrete and enduring, and must provide tangible

The fourth priority is intervention in the careers of those who have
already become delinquent. In the criminological literature, there is
much pessimism about any such attempts ; once again, Currie concedes
that many of the programs designed to recuperate delinquent youth do
not work - either because they have been ill-conceived, or because
they have been starved of resources. In particular, he says, programs
that focus upon the individual, rather than taking into account the
full social environment in which their delinquency occurred, do not
have any appreciable effect. Instead, he recommends ‘multisystemic
therapy' (MST), which takes into account the juvenile's relationships
with family, peers and school, as well as the community and other
wider systems, such as the job market. One such program in Missouri,
working with youths who had averaged four previous arrests, and 60
percent of whom had already done time, had encouraging effects ; those
who had received MST had a rearrest rate of 22 percent over the four
years following therapy, as against 70 percent of the control group,
who received individual therapy. In particular, the propensity of MST
graduates to be arrested for violent crimes was only one-third as high
as that of the controls.

Currie concludes that most of the successful programs, in each of the
four categories, are comprehensive, and try to get to the roots of the
problems. Although they are intensive, because they work, they are
cheap - the Rand Corporation has concluded that the better prevention
programs are from four to five times more cost-effective than
California's three- strike law. Nevertheless, these programs cannot,
by themselves, eradicate the underlying social structure which is, in
itself, criminogenic.

This leads the author to argue that prevention is not sufficient :
America also needs Social Action. This is because :

"Around the world, the countries with relatively low levels of violent
crime tend to be not only among the most prosperous but also those
where prosperity has become most general, most evenly distributed
throughout the population. The countries where violent crime is an
endemic problem are those in which prosperity, to the extent that it
is achieved at all, is confined to some sectors of the population and
denied to to others. That includes a number of less developed
countries in Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean ... and one
country in the developed world - the United States"

Currie claims that children and families in the US are far more likely
to be poor than their counterparts in other industrial democracies.
The two key reasons for this high degree of poverty are that the
working poor of the USA earn lower wages than do their counterparts in
other advanced economies, and that governments do less to redistribute
income. The US spends less than 4% of GDP on welfare,
including unemployment compensation and disability benefit - the UK,
which is not outstandingly generous, spends twice this.

A direct link can be shown to exist between income inequality and
violence. It is amongst those populations which are 'locked into the
most permanent forms of economic marginality in the most impoverished
and disrupted communities' that violence is most prevalent. Gartner
and Pampel, says Currie, demonstrated that in those societies which
have a 'collectivist orientation' - including universal social
benefits - there is only a weak connection between the size of the
youth population and the rate of homicide. In 'individualistic'
societies, rises in the proportion of youths lead to increases in

Unsurprisingly, Currie concludes that it is by tackling poverty, by
providing high wages and a comprehensive social security system, that
the USA will make some headway in tackling the crime problem.

Finally, he argues that changes can be made in the Justice System
itself. Instead of increasingly turning to 'tough' solutions, such as
boot camps, which have no effect on recidivism, or on punitive
probation, we should look to rehabilitation programs that have worked.
It is not the case that drug addiction cannot be confronted, although
many of the programs that are put forward by one guru or another are,
in fact, worthless. Nor is it the case that community-oriented
policing is pointless : police officers trained in child-development
issues, working with mental-health specialists, as in New Haven, may
offer quick response to troubled children who have had to witness acts
of violence, and do something towards preventing the downward spiral.

Currie concludes that America can combat the problem of violent crime
if it wants to. The question is, are affluent Americans willing to
make the effort, or will they continue to set up their own
ermine-lined ghettos, while pouring tax-money into prisons rather than

As I indicated at the outset, Currie's book is intended to be read by
a lay public, and to have a direct influence on political debate. His
argument flies in the face of much current thinking on crime, but as
Americans begin to count the real costs of the recent binge of prison
building, it may make some headway into the mainstream. It certainly
offers a challenge to the conservative case.

But it may be that Currie's objective - that of influencing public
opinion, and in particular the opinion of policy makers - has a price.
Currie shows little sensitivity to the processes by which our
conception of criminality is socially produced ; his use of the the
murder statistics as a prime indicator allows him to side-step the
issue of how crime-waves may be shaped by other forces than the
activities of criminals.

Moreover, Currie in true reformist style, espouses state intervention
: he sees it as the task of outside agencies to moralize the
under-class, to ensure that lower-class mothers bring their children
up properly - fathers appear to be absent from the early intervention
programs he cites - and to ensure the imposition of a minimal wage and
an efficient job-market. This leaves aside one of the more glaring
aspects of state-intervention both in the USA, and increasingly in
Europe, and that is the continued and largely successful attack upon
indigenous working-class institutions. The containing of criminality
in the UK, for example, is not simply the work of the state, through
policing or through welfare, but is contingent upon the development of
trades unions, co-operatives, working men's clubs and institutes which
provided the institutional basis for the control of every-day life in
working-class districts by working people themselves. Subsequent to
the Second World War, those institutions have been sapped by the state
: in the aftermath of war, the rehousing of working-class communities
in London and elsewhere, documented by Young and Wilmott and by Rex
and Moore, amongst others, deracinated those communities, and left
them exposed and helpless when the downturn in employment of the late
60s and 70s began to bite. The partially achieved destruction of the
trades unions under Mrs Thatcher, and the commercialization of the
working-men's clubs, has undermined the capacity of working people to
manage their own affairs to the extent that England may well follow
the US into a vicious cycle of violence. What may be lacking in the
USA is perhaps not so much a Welfare State, but the working-class
institutions that made the Welfare State politically necessary.

In a way, Currie offers some comfort to John Gerassi's argument that
crime in general, and violent crime in particular, is central to the
American way. It does seem to be the case that part of the price to be
paid for rugged individualism is a higher degree of personal danger.
Of course, this danger is more acute amongst the losers than among the
winners - for most affluent Americans, the payment is indirect. The
tax dollars that could go to educating the poor - 'Bring them light!'
cried Victor Hugo - finance the building of newer and more formidable
penitentiaries, dedicated to punishment and incapacitation rather than
reform - educational services in prison have been slashed in recent
years, notes Currie. Americans may well be willing to continue
electing politicians who promise more of the same. Perhaps one day
they will wake up to the fact that whereas civilized nations have
systems of welfare, the USA has the goon tower and the lethal
injection. And that it costs them far, far more.