A reader writes:
Good work with the crime misery index. I can think of two factors that would affect the index-- one on the imprisonment side and one on the homicide rate (as proxy for crime in general).
To take the homicide rate first, emergency medicine is WAY better than it was 40 years ago (apparently the experience of combat surgeons in Vietnam revolutionized the field). A lot of shooting victims are alive today who'd be murder statistics if they had been treated with 1960 medical technology. Doctors, nurses and paramedics have done more to keep the murder rate down than judges, lawyers and cops. A better comparison (and I wish I could remember where I first read this point) would be adding homicides and armed assaults for any given year. Over time, there would be fewer murders, but the number of armed assaults would stay about the same or go up (as would-be murderers are charged with armed assault).
I think that lousy medical care may explain the high homicide rate in the 1920s during a period of much lower imprisonment rates -- people died often from single bullets or knife wounds due to infections before the introduction of sulfas in the 1930s and the arrival of mass quantities of penicillin around 1944-45. Also, the first hospital blood bank in the U.S. was begun in Chicago in 1937.
On the other hand, criminals' firepower has gone up. Al Capone's gang was notorious for being able to afford automatic weapons ("tommy guns") but by the late 1980s every two bit punk could afford to spray his rivals from a passing car -- drive-by shootings didn't become terribly effective until crooks could just hose bullets in the general direction of their victims.
The good news is that the number of "serious violent crimes" reported by the public in the FBI's National Crime Victimization Survey (taken annually since 1973) is very much down. The total number of estimated serious violent crimes peaked at over four million in 1981 and again in 1993 and 1994, but has been under two million in 2001-2003.
Second, concerning the incarceration rate, let's not discount that before the 70's, cops dished out a lot more "street justice". Someone who gets the crap kicked out of him but isn't arrested (if only to avoid a judge seeing the beat up defendant) isn't counted in any arrest or incarceration statistics. It's unfortunate that race gets mixed up in the whole equation-- but even with a white suspect, cops today are much more careful about respecting the suspect's civil rights.
I think the rise of the crime rate is largely a result in the decline of street justice. When cops are, as they inevitably will be someday, wired with lipstick cameras to monitor their behavior with suspects, the problem will only get worse.
Along those lines, the creator of Deadwood (and co-creator of NYPD Blue), David Milch said something interesting last year:
"And the reason that cops only trust other cops is because they know that they've been hired to lie, they've been hired to beat the balls off people, and get them to confess so they can be excluded from society. That's the first part of their job. The second part of their job is to lie about what they did. And the third part of their job is to know that if they're caught, they're going to be put in jail. So for me, what every cop always told me was, 'Every time I see a guy in a suit, I'm afraid I'm gonna get locked up'."
I just saw a South Korean movie with scenes of how the police over there interrogate recalcitrant prisoners. Travel tip: When in Seoul, obey the law.
Torturing suspects seemed to be fairly routine in Cook County when I lived there.
But, in general, it appears we reduced police brutality in America, but wound up having to replace it with much more imprisonment (which includes brutalization of weaker prisoners by other prisoners -- unfortunately, the prisoner-on-prisoner brutalization is enjoyed by the stronger inmates, so that's the opposite of a deterrent for the most dangerous criminals).