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Book Review: Power, Politics, & Crime
by William J. Chambliss, Westview Press, 1999
Review by Rick Card
"There is ... a huge chasm," says William Chambliss in his book, Power, Politics, & Crime , "between the reality of crime, the public's perception of it, and the information being disseminated to the public by law enforcement agencies, the media, and politicians."
Chambliss, a sociology professor at George Washington University, and former president of the American Society for Criminology, writes with a clear and authoritative voice. He demonstrates that America's fear of crime has been manufactured by conservative politicians seeking to repress civil rights and political dissent, a consolidated media obsessed with captivating a mass audience, and the law enforcement industry reaching for an everlarger share of public funds.
Chambliss focuses on what he calls "marketing crime," a wretched conflict of interests that culminates in the designed manipulation of crime statistics. He points out that the Department of Justice and the FBI are the only real sources of data on annual crime, and that both agencies have strong bureaucratic and financial incentives to present the data in less than realistic terms.
Using the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) published annually by the FBI and widely read by journalists and politicians, Chambliss shows us how the figures are fraught with error and paint a highly distorted picture of crime trends in America. In what he characterizes as "law enforcement propaganda," Chambliss shows how the FBI used a rising red graph for its 1992 UCR cover, when in factalthough cleverly hiddenthe report actually described a decline in almost all major crime categories. However, anyone viewing the cover of the report would immediately assume that crime was rising sharply.
Moreover, the UCR is full of statistical fictions arising from the bizarre methods of reporting mandated by the FBI. For example, if five men enter a bank and rob it, only one bank robbery was committed. That, however, is not how the FBI will report the crime in its annual report. The UCR will count the incident as five bank robberies, one for each individual involved. And worse, as Chambliss points out with unveiled disbelief, if five men get into a bar fight with five other men, the UCR will report a total of ten assaults, five for the men who initiated the fight, and one for each victim.
The entire reporting process developed by the FBI for calculating the UCR is designed to create the appearance that crime is out of control in the streets of America. In fact, the polar opposite is true, as Chambliss points out. Americans today are statistically safer on the streets than perhaps at any other time in our nation's history.
The misrepresentation of data is serious because the UCR is an exclusive source of crime statistics throughout our communities. As journalists and politicians report the FBI's findings year after year, this propaganda becomes amplified throughout the ranks of our society, creating fear and alarm in its wake. This fear leads to more funding for the expanding law enforcement industry, rewarding the very individuals responsible for manipulating the data and creating the fear to begin with. It is a vicious cycle that not only destroys the lives of all of those directly caught in it, but also robs both social and economic power from citizens everywhere.
In spite of this, Chambliss saves his real wrath for the "War on Drugs," which he wisely labels, "America's ethnic cleansing." He favors decriminalization, and points to a plethora of information from other Western democracies to support his contention that decriminalization will not increase usage. In perhaps one of his wisest statements on the subject, Chambliss writes, "The argument that decriminalizing drugs would increase their availability ignores the fact that criminalizing them has in no way decreased their availability."
Another feature of Power, Politics, & Crime that cannot be overlooked is a chapter entitled, "Trading Textbooks for Prison Cells." This is an area of the prison debate that is too often neglected by critics of the criminal justice system, yet it offers a real chance to grab the attention of political reformers. Here Chambliss denounces our national trend toward gutting educational budgets in favor of continued financing of prison construction.
Between 1994 and 1995, Chambliss points out that state bond fund expenditures decreased by $954 million for education, while simultaneously rising $926 million for corrections expenditures. This indicates a "directly proportional" link between decreases in education spending and increases in prison expansion.
Moreover, Chambliss points out that the California Higher Education system, once the envy of all other states, lost 8,000 employees between 1984 and 1994, while over the same period, the California Department of Corrections saw an increase of 25,000 employees.
Chambliss concludes his book with several proposals for reversing the prisonindustrial complex. Among them he proposes abolishing draconian drug laws, eliminating the disparity in the sentencing of minorities, placing law enforcement agencies under the supervision of civilians, and cracking down on corporate crimes, which Chambliss contends pale street crimes in terms of societal and economic damage.
Power, Politics, & Crime is a painful indictment of our entire criminal justice system, and it is presented in unmistakable terms. This is a book that ought to be read by everyone who still believes that "justice for all" is a possibility in America.
The book is 173 pages and is available from Westviewg Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, CO., 80301. It is listed at $25.00.
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