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  Global Views
USA — Violence Statistics & Statistical Violence
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
A victim of violence in the United States

Formerly a mathematics teacher, I sometimes taught statistical analysis. An unshakable truth soon emerged from my teaching- statistics was as much art as science. It wasn’t so much concerning the simpler fact that one could pick and choose which statistics to cite and which to ignore, but that the actual systems of statistical measurements themselves could be chosen to suit! Applications trumped theorems it seemed.

It’s worthy of note that probability- which is the precursor to the later-formalized field of statistics- came to be as per the demands aristocrats of the 17th century French court placed upon mathematicians as these men of leisure needed odds with which to better pursue their chances in gambling with newly invented card games.

The use of statistics to prove a point often does feel like a gamble. Few fields of mathematics afford such leeway and often, abuse. It is no wonder that politicians and journalists wield so-called facts and figures like a choice of weapons in a duel.

So caveat emptor- and I will now do my honest best given these confessions! What follows is an attempt to reveal and somehow deal with conundrums as conjured by statistical analysis as applied to current crime and violence statistics from the United States.

It may come as a shock to those readers who aren’t from America that the United States incarcerates 25% of all prisoners held in the world. And this from a so-called free country that accounts for only 5% of the world’s population. (It’s interesting to note that this 5:1 ratio also applies to America’s disproportionate use of fossil fuels) At a rate of 750 per 100,000 adults, America imprisons more people than the total number of those incarcerated in 57 different countries.

In sheer numbers, the sum total of state and federally-held inmates comes in at around two million Americans, or about one percent of the adult population. So for every ninety-nine people one sees on the streets, there is one who is invisibly socked away in jail somewhere.

But how does this reflect on actual violent crime statistics in the U.S.? Not knowing any better, the causal observer might be quick to assume that most of those behind bars are indeed violent criminals. Just take a look at U.S. news over the past two years- or even the past two months: thirty-two students and teachers gunned down in their classrooms at Virginia Tech by a crazed student; mass murder of thirteen at an Immigration Center in New York by a immigrant who had lost his job; a disgruntled engineer wearing a Santa Claus suit crashes a Christmas party at his ex-wife’s parent’s home in Los Angeles kills nine and torches the house with a homemade incendiary device; a grudge-driven young man driving across two rural counties in Alabama carries out the murder of ten as per a predetermined “hit-list”; a man murders his five children in Washington state because his wife is seeing another man.

The list goes on. (I might add that of the 30,000 U.S. deaths attributed to guns annually, about 40% are intentional homicide, a small fraction accidental, and most of the balance, suicide. Most mass murders, by the way, end up by taking their own life)

This points invariably to the fact that America has a terrible penchant for violence, and the country being awash in free access to guns, that violence can be carried out with utter ease, doesn’t it?

So it must stand to reason that America prisons must be filled with the criminally violent.

But that is not the case. In 2004, about one-half of all prisoners in the U.S. were being held for committing non-violent crimes. And of those, about 40% had been charged, convicted, and sentenced for drug-related offenses. Some 15-20% of all inmates are imprisoned for committing crimes in order to obtain money to buy drugs.

In a past article for the Seoul Times which focused on the Mexican Drug Cartels and America’s War on Drugs, I called for the decriminalization- and though I erred in not using the term- the legalization of marijuana in the United States. The statistics as cited above drive the point home even more so.

As per the standing issue in this article, economics, as always, is a deciding factor for anyone with a pragmatic bent of mind who is serious in tackling crime. The U.S. prison population has increased by one million in the last twenty years. And the dollars as spent on America’s correctional facilities have increased four fold during that time. Most U.S. prisons are maintained by the individual fifty states, not the federal government. Some of those states are near bankrupt as their spending on prisons and prisoners skyrockets. California spends over $35,000.00 per year per prisoner, and the state of Oregon spends 11% of its general funds budget on its state prison system.

Moreover, there are spillover costs deleterious to important line items of state budgets. Take higher education. Higher education is primarily the responsibility and prerogative of the states as well. The cost of maintaining the U.S. prison system- about 50 billion dollars- is now equal to roughly 60% of all federal plus state dollars spent on higher education- double the 1987 ratio.

Increased incarceration over the past twenty years is in part the result of three-strike laws and mandatory sentencing for both violent and non-violent crimes. The Law and Order frenzy stirred in the early 1970’s by such politicians as President Nixon and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller has helped reap an untenable prison economics.

All other considerations aside, with the U.S. now on the verge of bankruptcy, can the country continue to afford imprisoning two million of its citizens while neglecting the education of its children?

The trade-off simply breeds more crime. Outlawing drugs, for instance, has resulted in an increased violent crime rate, supports the proliferation of gang culture, wastes billions of tax payer dollars, increases illegal border crossings, supports drug cartels, and supports terrorism as drug monies go to support terrorist organizations and militias in countries outside of the United States. The Taliban is one exemplar as they reap handsomely from Afghanistan’s heroin trade.

Yet in the face of all this, here’s another set of figures that shows how statistics can confuse: both U.S. violent and non-violent crime rates have declined in recent years (4.5% and 15.5% respectively)!

How is it crime rates can decrease yet the prisoner population double during the same time period?

Extended mandatory sentences are a big reason for this. Prisoners stay in jail for longer and longer periods of time. So, too, the population of the U.S. has grown considerably over the past quarter century. One has to understand one set of statistics in light of multiple sets to make any sense of things.

Other factors affecting crime rate include unemployment rate, income levels, the single parent population, educational level, living conditions, growth of the military, population age, and income inequality.

Correlation of these parameters immediately brings one set of relations into stark light: A more highly educated population decreases crime rates, so better spend government monies on education as opposed to prisons.

Turning back to vice laws once again, imprisoning people for drug use is manifestly counterproductive. Vice can never be eradicated without turning a society into a police state. Illegal drugs take the life of 28,000 Americans a year, whereas alcohol kills 150,000, and tobacco, 430,000. Both alcohol and tobacco are regulated and taxed by both state and federal levels of government. The next step should be doing the same for at least marijuana. From that jobs will be created and taxes can be used for education and health care. That’s exactly the case as per allocations of the monies as derived from taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

There are perhaps larger issues looming here. Violence itself is the most intractable. It seems inculcated in the American experience. And with every new mass murder by gun in the U.S., the ante is upped, and the public becomes that much more desensitized to expanded violence. In fact, mass murder in shockingly high numbers can no longer be called “infrequent” in America, having reached repeatedly into schools, places of worship, the work place, and even geriatric rehabilitation centers. And the fervor with which Americans “cling to their guns” is as passionate as any advocacy for individual freedom as enumerated in not only the constitution, but more powerfully, in the American consciousness itself.

All American politicians know they can’t take guns away from Americans. That is virtually taboo- off the table- a political impossibility. But reform of criminal law and the resulting redistribution of government funds away from punishing non-violent crime and towards education offers hope for defusing the tempers of those Americans who do own the weapons.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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