The crime problem in the United States has historically been misstated and exaggerated by bureaucrats and politicians. The intentions behind these overstatements vary within each context but a common thread emerges upon closer examination. As in any capitalist society, money and material possession are the primary motivation that fuels society and people. It could be argued that FBI director Louis Freeh made his comments to the National Press Club in 1994 out of genuine concern for the American people, but realistically the statement was made in an effort to gather support and increase funding for law enforcement. Following this statement and from increased pressure from politicians, the Federal Crime Bill was ratified, and authorized the spending of thirty billion dollars, primarily towards more police officers and prisons. It also included many new punitive sanctions and the expansion of the death penalty to more than fifty federal crimes. Louis Freeh’s politically correct and unapprised proclamation takes an exceptionally narrow view of crime and its curtailment. Freeh chooses to focus on the media, statistics, and ultimately public opinion as his justification for increased funding. However he fails to realize the influence of the media and statistics in molding public opinion and the difference between public opinion and reality. Existing individualistic theories such as rational choice theory help reinforce Freeh’s statement. The overstated crime problem, backed by a capitalistic media and misinterpreted statistics has created a punitive crime policy, which is further supported by individualistic theories of crime. In this paper I will show how misreported statistics and media focus on violent crimes shapes public opinion. Then I will go on to demonstrate the role of individualistic theories in supporting punitive crime control policies. Ultimately I look to prove that the actions of the media and politicians are centered on money and how crime is inherent to the American Dream .
The media never has been and probably never will be an accurate source for criminology or criminal analysis. The sensationalist media depiction of crime is almost always exaggerated and biased toward violent crimes. From newspapers to television the crimes that get the most coverage and attention are homicides and aggravated assaults. However, in actuality ninety percent of all crimes are property crimes and less than one percent are homicides (Stephen Lincoln 9/24/01). The media also is fond of reporting crime clocks based on aggregate statistics. Popular and catchy lines like, “A murder occurs every twenty seven minutes, a robbery every sixty seconds,” are very misleading yet are used regularly. These crime clocks show no reference to a ratio between crimes being committed and the people effected (Lincoln 10/3/01). Once again here the motives behind depiction of crime by the media vary, but money can be found at the source. Newspapers and television stations don’t want to report common and usually petty crimes because they are boring and monotonous. People don’t buy boring and monotonous newspapers; so to increase circulation and ultimately revenues, editors choose to emphasize and embellish violent crimes. This intentional bias towards violent crimes, even though they represent a very small fraction of all crimes creates a sense of apprehension and concern in law-abiding citizens.
Television is also responsible for exaggerating crime and over emphasizing its focus on violent crimes. Where newspapers can only provide writing and limited photographs of crime, television can take the next step in showing (versus telling) the crime and criminals. The television show “COPS” is an excellent example of the misrepresentation of crime and law enforcement. On the show you never see routine traffic stops or officers writing parking tickets, rather the producers choose to show shootings, gang fights and drug offenders. People throughout the country get to see criminals actually breaking the law on television. Given that the majority of the scenes shown are of violent crimes, people construct a violent and evil image of all criminals. While in reality the majority of police work is mundane, the show attempts to glamorize crime fighting (Lincoln 9/26/01). These producers don’t care about how they are depicting crime or its consequences; they are simply concerned about TV ratings. Higher ratings mean advertisers must pay more money for airtime, which ultimately leads to more money for the television networks.
By constantly and disproportionately reporting violent crimes, the media influence the general public into thinking there is a bad crime problem. The media produces several criminal fallacies and strongly influences the public’s opinion on crime. The dramatic fallacy has been discussed above as it relates to the overemphasis on violent and extreme crimes. The “not me” fallacy helps create a distinction between criminals and non-criminals (Lincoln 9/29/01). By creating a distinction, people tend to believe they are not capable of committing violent crimes and that criminals are inherently evil and different from the rest of society. “Contrary to popular perception, the expansion of the U.S. prison and jail populations are not the direct result of a worsening or an exceptionally bad crime problem…rates of violent and property crime have been in decline” (Beckett and Sasson 237). Since the vast majority of crimes people hear and see in the news are violent and heinous, they assume that there is a crime problem and that something must be done to stop it.
The statistics that the media enjoys to misinterpret and report misleadingly is primarily taken from the uniform crime report. The uniform crime report is aggregate data taken from 17,000 law enforcement agencies and compiled annually by the federal bureau of investigation. Organizational and presentational concerns arise from the uniform crime report (Lincoln 10/3/01). There are significant omissions in the report such as white-collar and environmental crimes. Also the definition of crimes chosen by the agencies greatly manipulates the data. For example some jurisdictions define rape as the forceful act of sexual intercourse, this omits the entire category of date rape (Lincoln 10/3/01). Law enforcement agencies have a direct interest in the reporting of crimes and crime rates. If they report that crime is on the decline, then people will feel more secure and satisfied with law enforcement but funding will be decreased. Conversely if they report that crime is increasing, and make the public feel at risk, an increase in funding will occur and be justified.
Individualistic theories of crime serve to contribute support to the image of the bad crime problem and encourage punitive crime control policies. The two hundred year old rational choice theory defines human behavior through the two principles that humans act in order to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This very Hedonistic theory facilitates the creation of punitive polices because it creates a need to harshly punish self-indulgent crimes. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a rapid influx of punitive crime policies like the creation of long mandatory prison sentences for drug possession and the expansion of the death penalty. The biological deterministic theory highlighted by C. Ronald Huff in Historical Explanations of Crime defines a “criminal type, or ‘born criminal’”(Huff 75). The theory works hand in hand with the media depiction of criminals. It tries to show criminals as separate and distinct entities that are different from the rest of society. In this theory it is ineffective to deter crime since criminals are unalterable and predestined to break the law. Biological individualistic theories should be analyzed and critiqued with rigorous scrutiny. Although many of the sources for data acquisition in this theory are objective, the consequences and conclusions drawn from the data are subjective and open to argument (Lincoln 10/17/01).
In order to curb crime based on the rational choice theory, lawmakers have fashioned policy around preventative measures. The foundation of preventive policy is based on controlling the physical environment. Examples of preventive measures are gated communities, target hardening, and neighborhood watch programs. Although these policies are effective in curtailing crime in their specific contexts, “measures which increase the difficulties of a particular crime will merely result in criminal activity being ‘displaced’”(Cornish & Clarke 118). A criminal isn’t going to break a law that is heavily policed and enforced because his chances of getting caught are greater.
To counter the supposed pressing crime problem, bureaucrats and politicians alike have adopted a very punitive system of crime control. They claim that, “The people of this country are fed up with crime” and that the people are the ones demanding better crime control (Louis Freeh, 1994). Gallup polls from 1993 to 1998 showed that crime was the most pressing problem in public opinion (Lincoln 9/28/01). In actuality during this same time period the crime rate has been decreasing annually which does not justify the tremendous rise in government spending that has been allocated to the criminal justice system. This goes to show that public opinion does not necessarily mimic or reflect the true reality of the situation. Public opinion can be easily shaped and molded by forces such as media and politicians. More responsibility must be taken by the media in reporting statistics and crime because of their influence on public opinion. When influential leaders like Louis Freeh make statements based on the opinion of the masses instead of facts, the false crime problem is further worsened and perpetuated.