About This Blog

Entries beginning with a number are a continuation of the old Judging Crimes blog, which was long focused on the two meanings of its name: the way crimes are judged in America, and the, uh... occasional defalcations and derelictions of the berobed.

Judging Crimes took a long hiatus for some of the reasons explained here.

Entries beginning with Book 'em! are book reviews and commentaries. No attention is paid to the imperatives of book marketing. As Calvin Trillin once pointed out, the average shelf life of a book in a bookstore falls somewhere between milk and yogurt, but in these days of long-tail online marketing that matters less to everyone, and I don't see why it should matter at all to reviewers. Most posts will be about books that have been around long past the time when yogurt would have solidified.

Other entries will be... well, I'm curious to find out what the others will be.

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« 362. Mere reality | Main | 360. Do the hustle »

361.  Normalization

Tanae and her cousin, Mishay Williams (Mishay), were standing on the porch outside Tanae's house.  [FN3. Tanae was 14 years old and Mishay 12 years old at the time of trial.] ...  Tanae's 16-year-old brother, Deron Calhoun (Calhoun), and their mother walked to an ice cream truck at the corner of 41st and Naomi Streets. A few minutes later, Tanae saw Vince walking up Naomi Street toward the ice cream truck, holding a “long black gun.” Tanae ran into the house with Mishay, got on the floor, and heard gunshots. ... After the shooting, there was a hole in the front window of her house.

That's from an unpublished decision of California's Second District (i.e., LA, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo) Court of Appeal.  The case was People v. Paul, it came out July 9, 2008, and I haven't been able to find a link to it.

It was a routine case - just another shooting.  What got me was kids, younger than 14 and 12 at the time of the incident, knowing exactly what to do when they saw a man coming up the street with a rifle.  They ran into the house and dropped below the level of the windows.

For those kids, gunfire and sudden violent death was, if not exactly normal, something that could reasonably be anticipated.  For a caregiver, part of responsible parenting was teaching children how to recognize and respond to such potentially lethal threats.

I think that the process of normalization is the single most important variable in establishing the rate of a community's violent crime.  What people expect influences what actually happens, and not in some semi-mystical Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle sort of way.  (Besides, I'm talking about the macroscopic world - the one with bullets.)

I can best explain what I mean with an illustration, and luckily one comes readily to hand:

My brother Peter Jacobsen wrote a paper a couple years back called "Safety in numbers: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling."  It was published in Injury Prevention magazine and became a kind of instant classic in the field of traffic safety.  The World Health Organization, for instance, flew him to an Oslo conference on the strength of it.

As described in this Transportation Alternatives article,

The research suggests that the relationship between increased cycling and increased safety varies according to “PJ’s Law”, named for Peter Jacobsen, the California engineer who documented it in an article in Injury Prevention. He found that doubling the number of cyclists on the road tends to bring about a 1/3 drop in the per-cyclist frequency of a crash with a motor vehicle. By the same token, tripling the rate of cycling cuts the crash rate in half.

It seems counterintuitive at first, but it's really not.  If the driver of a car expects to see lots of bicycles, he or she will be on the lookout for them, and that much less likely to turn right in front of them, push them off the road, clip their rear wheels, open doors on them, and all those other things cars regularly do to bicycles.  As bicycle riding becomes normal, it becomes safer.

I think something similar helps to explain the phenomenon of violent crime rates dropping precipitously in some places (such as New York) while rising in others.  Here's one article on the phenomenon.   Over the summer, U.S. News reported:

Among cities with populations over 1 million, murder rates dropped 9.8 percent. That is a stark contrast to medium-size cities. Those with populations of 100,000 to 249,999 saw a 1.9 percent rise in murder rates. For cities with 50,000 to 99,999 residents, the increase was even greater: 3.7 percent.
In fact, according to Mayor Bloomberg, if not for New York's contribution, the national homicide rate would have been steady last year

The important variable isn't New York getting safer, but New Yorkers believing it's getting safer.  As more people are out on the streets, the streets become safer.  47 years ago, Jane Jacobs observed that "[a] well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe."  When safety becomes normal, people are unafraid, which makes the community safer.

What may be good advice for the individual - for example, don't let your daughters walk outside after dark - can be destructive for the wider community of which the individual is a member.  It normalizes fear.  As fewer girls venture outside alone at night, it becomes more dangerous for girls in general to do so.

The really destructive effect of our judges' social experiments over the past 50 years - their constant reminders that arrogance is just a particularly clueless form of ignorance - is that by requiring communities to tolerate increased levels of violence, they've made violence normal in those communities.  The criminal law isn't a succession of individual cases.  It's a social dynamic.

Which is why 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds have to be taught to run indoors and lie on the floor - though, of course, only if they're growing up in neighborhoods far from those inhabited by any judges.

References (1)

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Reader Comments (1)

This is fascinating, but how do you put this into practice in a city like Flint, Michigan, where I grew up. It has severe economic problems as a result of deindustrialization, and a horrific crime rate. I understand this concept in theory, but when I try to think how Flint could put it into practice, it seems a little hopeless.

Other than encouraging folks not to be afraid and venture out on the empty streets of Flint — where they could very well have very bad things happen to them — what do you do?

September 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGordie Young

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