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The Libertarian Party's Solution to America's Epidemic of Violent Crime

Introduction

America suffers from an epidemic of violence and crime. Each year, 35 million Americans, or one of every four households, are victimized -- a murder every 25 minutes, a rape every five minutes, and a theft every four seconds.

Driven by polls showing that crime is now the single most important issue to American voters, politicians scramble to show themselves "tough" on crime. But Republicans and Democrats continue to offer recycled versions of the same failed policies of the past.

The Libertarian Party believes a fresh approach is needed. That's why we're offering this comprehensive proposal to make America's streets safe again -- for you, your children, and your community.

The Omnibus Crime Bill:
Pursuing the Failed Policies of the Past

The current approach to criminal justice has clearly failed. Years of anti-crime bills and tough talk by politicians have:

  • reduced our personal security;
  • created an indirect system of price supports for drug pushers;
  • set habitually violent criminals free to harm more innocent victims;
  • corrupted America's police departments;
  • bred disrespect for the law;
  • trampled the Bill of Rights;
  • squandered billions of the taxpayers' dollars; and
  • left us all more fearful and less safe than we have ever been before.

Yet, our political leaders continue on the same path: tough talk, no effective action. What they call for has, and will continue to: fill our prisons with non-violent offenders guilty of consensual or victimless crimes, while releasing violent criminals back onto our streets; further curtail the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens; further disarm the victims, depriving them of the right of self-defense; all the while failing to address the real causes of crime. The 1994 crime bill making its way through Congress is just the latest example, staggering after similar crime bills in 1992, 1990, 1988, etc.

The current bill, the "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994," is a 960 page Senate substitute for a House-passed amendment to the "Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968." It is best known for its provisions to fund 100,000 additional police officers, but it also contains many provisions that should deeply disturb Americans who value both public safety and liberty.

The bill would surrender traditionally local law enforcement to the federal government. It establishes "gender-motivated violence," as a new category of federal crime, elevating domestic disputes to the federal level. Do we really want the FBI and the federal courts handling spousal abuse cases? Do we need to clog the federal courts with rape cases that can be better handled at the local or state level?

Under the bill, any murder committed with a gun that crossed state lines -- even in shipment from manufacturer to seller -- would come under federal jurisdiction. The bill would impose the death penalty for 51 new crimes, including, specifically, the murder of federal chicken inspectors. There is also the simply silly, such as a federal program to establish "drug-free truck stops."

Law enforcement has, traditionally and constitutionally, been a function of local and state government. Americans are justifiably suspicious of a national police force. But, the crime bill takes long strides in that direction.

The crime bill also mounts an aggressive assault on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. It bans 19 semiautomatic firearms by name and other unnamed semiautomatics, using a definition so broad that as many as 181 types of weapons could be outlawed. The bill also bans magazines of more than 10 round capacity.

As one might expect, the crime bill is filled with "pork" and wasteful spending. Indeed, of its estimated $22.3 billion cost, more than $9 billion goes to social programs, such as after school recreation, not law enforcement. The bill also funds seven national commissions, six task forces, 16 reports, four studies, and four advisory boards and councils. There are grants to study racial bias in the justice system, economic terrorism, family unity, and even whether to establish "family jails" for mothers with children.

Even currently popular provisions, such as "three strikes and you're out," are unlikely to significantly reduce crime. A relatively small proportion of all offenders commit most of the crime. Removing these "career criminals" from society makes sense. But, the "three strikes" approach is illusory.

Nearly every study of criminal behavior shows that men between the ages of 16 and 35 commit most of the crime. Those leaving prison after the age of 40 have an amazingly low recidivism rate.

Yet, "three strikes" would keep three time losers in prison into their 60's, 70's and beyond. Moreover, not all those convicted under the three strikes provision will be guilty of truly violent crimes. The bill's definition of "violent felony" is so broad that it includes someone who punches a park ranger or vandalizes a mail box. With prison costs running at more than $60,000 per bed (plus $23,500 per inmate per year to incarcerate an individual), there is a significant danger that "three strikes" could lead to the early release of truly violent criminals serving their first or second sentence, in order to warehouse elderly criminals who pose little or no threat to society.

Adding the 100,000 new police officers will not guarantee a reduced crime rate. The District of Columbia has more police officers per capita than any other major American city. It also has one of the highest crime rates.

In every election year, Congress rushes to pass a new crime bill. We can look forward to the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1996, 1998, ad nauseam. But, until Congress chooses to learn from past mistakes, we are unlikely to see Congressional action leading to safer streets.

The Libertarian Approach:
A Victim-Centered Approach

Our criminal justice system is a contest between the criminal and the state (the government) based on the fiction that crimes are committed against the state. Crimes are committed against real people. A system that treats victims as just another piece of evidence, to be evaluated and then discarded, is wrong and must be changed.

The Libertarian Party believes that the criminal justice system should, at its center, be based on protecting the rights and interests of the victim. It is, after all, the victim who is injured by the criminal act.

The Libertarian alternative applies a victim-centered approach to all aspects of the criminal justice system. Law enforcement resources will be shifted from victimless crimes to protecting potential victims from violent crimes. Protection of victims' rights will be stressed throughout the criminal justice process. Ensuring the right of self-defense and addressing the root causes of crime will enhance the security of all Americans.

1. Ensure Justice for the Victim

The Libertarian Party believes that the focus of the criminal justice system should be to obtain justice for the victim. Our current criminal justice system has increasingly viewed the crime's victim as irrelevant to the justice process.

Take, for example, the question of sentencing. The first goal should be to make the victim whole while holding the criminal responsible for his deed. Therefore, the criminal justice system should place a strong emphasis on restitution. Other appropriate goals, such as deterrence and punishment, are secondary.

Restitution is one of the oldest precepts of criminal justice, appearing even in the Bible. Restitution recognizes that crime is "an offense by one individual against the rights of another. The victim has suffered a loss. Justice consists of the culpable offender making good the loss he has caused." Thus, if a criminal steals, in addition to any other punishment he may receive, he should be required to repay the value of whatever he stole. If he injured his victim, he should be required to compensate the victim for medical costs plus pain and suffering.

Approximately 35 states currently have some form of victim restitution requirement, but such statutes are seldom enforced. Even when courts order restitution, the state typically makes little effort to compel payment, or the defendant has few assets.

We can correct the former problem by a vigorous commitment to enforce restitution. Solving the latter problem calls for the institution of prison-based industries and prison-based labor, requiring a prisoner to work to pay restitution to his victim. Restitution should always be a condition of probation or community release.

Just as a defendant has the right to certain protections within the criminal justice system, the victim must also have specified rights if the system is to be truly equitable. Victims should have a right to be present, to be consulted, and to be heard at all stages of criminal proceedings, including post-arrest and post-conviction release decisions and plea negotiations. Victims should be provided with information about the criminal justice system in general and their case in particular. Victims should have the right to confer with prosecutors throughout the criminal justice process to ensure that their concerns are taken into account, and should have the right to veto the prosecutor's plea bargain proposals.

Victims of violent crimes should also be informed of the release, transfer or escape of any person convicted of a crime against them. Many victims live in fear that the criminal who victimized them once may return to seek revenge or victimize them again. Assuring victims that they will be notified if the criminal is released, transferred or escapes will help ease this fear and provide the opportunity to take additional safety measures. Finally, the system must protect witnesses and victims from intimidation and retaliation.

2. End Prohibition

Our criminal justice system fails to render justice to the victims of crime because it spends an inordinate amount of resources on "crimes" that do not directly harm the person or property of another. More than 350,000 Americans are in jail today for victimless (or consensual) crimes, such as gambling, drug use, prostitution, sodomy, etc. An additional 1.5 million are on parole or probation. The annual cost of arresting and punishing people for these consensual crimes is more than $50 billion. That figure will grow even larger if politicians succeed in adding smoking tobacco to the prohibited list. No wonder we are so short of resources to protect victims of real crimes like robbery, rape and murder.

Of all our current law enforcement strategies, none has failed as dramatically -- or with such devastating results -- as the "War on Drugs." By attempting to solve America's drug problem through the criminal law, the government is repeating the same mistakes made 75 years ago during alcohol prohibition. Just as alcohol prohibition gave America Al Capone, the mafia, and shootouts on the streets of Chicago, drug prohibition has brought us the Crips, Bloods and Jamaican Posses. At the same time, drug prohibition has failed miserably in its primary goal -- curbing drug use.

The correlation between drug prohibition and violence can no longer be doubted. As Figure 1. shows, America saw its highest murder rate during the years of prohibition. In the years after prohibition's repeal the murder rate steadily declined. Only after the beginning of the crackdown on illegal drugs in the 1960's did murder rates begin to edge back up. Today the murder rate again resembles the prohibition years. While other factors, such as the breakdown of the family and the rise of the welfare state (see below) certainly contributed to this rise, a vast body of evidence links the "war on drugs" to increased violence and crime.

Drug prohibition leads to increased violence and crime in three major ways. First, a black market in drugs will inevitably lead to violence. This includes the classic "turf wars," as well as the murder of informants, rip-offs, revenge, etc. These acts of violence occur because there is no peaceful, legal method for drug dealers to resolve disputes in court and, because the penalties for drug dealing are so severe, additional penalties for murder are a weak deterrent.

Second, because drug prohibition greatly increases the cost of drugs, users often steal in order to support their habits. Indeed, it is estimated that an addict must steal $600 worth of goods a day to support a $100 a day habit. As a result, it is estimated that drug addicts commit 25% of all auto thefts, 40% of robberies and assaults, and 50% of burglaries and larcenies. The FBI estimates the value of goods stolen to support drug habits at more than $6 billion per year.

Third, drug prohibition diverts scarce law enforcement resources to preposterous and irrelevant uses. When the DEA spends 18 months surveiling a Georgia gardening store because it suspects the owners of selling fertilizer to people growing marijuana, it does little to protect Americans from real crime.

The War on Drugs has filled our prisons beyond their capacity. In 1991, state prisons, in the aggregate, were operating at 123% of capacity. At least 34 states are under court order to reduce the prison population, sometimes requiring the release of criminals -- including violent offenders -- into the community. Yet, at the same time, nearly 60% of all inmates in federal prison, and a quarter of all state prisoners, are there for drug-related offenses. Thus robbers, rapists, and murderers go free to keep peaceful drug users in jail.

Finally, drug prohibition has increasingly led to the violation of constitutional rights. Virtually no part of the Bill of Rights has been immune. The innocent suffer along with the guilty. The Libertarian Party has consistently called for an end to drug prohibition for more than 20 years. Today, we are joined by such academics, law enforcement officers, public officials, and legislators who support drug legalization as Nobel laureates Gary Becker and Milton Friedman, Federal Judges Robert Sweet and Ed Schwartz, former Secretary of State George Shultz, Mayors Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore and Carrie Saxon-Perry of Hartford, former Congressman George Crocket of Michigan, and columnists William F. Buckley, Steve Chapman, Richard Cohen, Mike Royko, Thomas Sowell, and Anthony Lewis.

The Economist, Oakland Tribune and Detroit News have editorialized in favor of legalization. In addition, legalization is supported by the National Association of Veteran Police Officers, American Bar Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the American Civil Liberties Union. And, of course, even President Clinton's Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, has recommended that legalization be studied.

3. Get Tough on Real Crime

In part because of the diversion of resources to fight victimless crime (see above), real criminals increasingly escape punishment. As Figure 2. shows, the cost a criminal can expect to pay for committing a crime has declined for 20 years, while crime rates have steadily increased.

The Libertarian Party believes that individuals should be held responsible for their actions. This includes swift and certain punishment for those guilty of committing violence or fraud against others.

But today, criminal sentences seldom mean what they say. On average, a criminal will serve only 37% of any sentence imposed. As a result, 51% of all violent offenders are released from jail after serving two years or less, and 76% were released after serving four years or less.

When a Judge imposes a sentence, the criminal should serve that sentence. Parole and other forms of early release should be severely restricted. Virtually every study on the subject has shown that parolees have a high recidivism rate. For example, one 1987 study found that 69% of parolees were rearrested within six years of their release.

One deeply disturbing trend is the increasing tendency to excuse individuals from responsibility for the crimes they commit. From the "Twinkie defense" to the Menendez and Bobbitt trials, juries have been too willing to excuse a defendant's guilt. Insanity and diminished capacity defenses should be abolished or severely restricted. The insanity defense can be replaced by a plea of "guilty but mentally ill," which would enable the offender to receive medical help, but would still require him to serve the appropriate sentence for his crime. The use of alcohol or drugs should never constitute an excuse for criminal conduct.

The juvenile justice system should be radically revised to ensure that juveniles are held fully accountable for the crimes they commit. Juveniles commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime. From 1982-1991, the number of juveniles arrested for murder or manslaughter increased by 93%. In 1990, individuals under the age of 21 were responsible for one-third of all murders. Yet, only 5% of violent juvenile offenders are tried as adults. In some states a juvenile offender cannot be sentenced to serve a term past the age of 25 -- no matter how serious the offense. Juveniles who commit adult crimes should be tried as adults and pay adult penalties.

4. Protect the Right to Self-Defense

Americans have always viewed the right to self-defense as fundamental. Our Founding Fathers enshrined it in the Second Amendment. Yet, now, not only is the government failing to protect us, but it seems increasingly determined to disarm law-abiding Americans, thereby preventing them from exercising this fundamental right. Not only is the right of private citizens to keep and bear arms protected by the Constitution, it reduces crime and victimization.

Research by Peter Hart Associates in 1980 found that 4% of American households reported defensive use of a handgun within the previous five years. More recently, Gary Kleck of Florida State University estimated that defensive handgun use at between 850,000 and 2.5 million incidents per year. Every year an estimated 2,000-3,000 criminals are killed by armed citizens acting in self-defense.

The importance of firearms in preventing crime can be clearly seen in the aftermath of Florida's 1987 decision to allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons. Since the law's passage, over 175,000 people have received concealed carry permits. FBI statistics show that the murder rate in Florida has declined 21% in the five years since, while the national murder rate increased 12%.

While opponents of the right to keep and bear arms frequently cite studies showing that individuals are more likely to kill an innocent person than protect a potential victim, those studies are seriously flawed. In reality, as many as 75 lives are protected by a gun for every life lost to a gun. Moreover defense with guns is one of the safest responses to violent crime. Defense with a gun results in fewer injuries to the defender (defender injured 17.4% of the time) than resisting with less powerful weapons (knives, 40.3%; other weapons, 22%; hands, 50.8%, and evasion, 34.9%). In fact, defense with a gun is safer than not resisting at all (24.7%). This is particularly important to women, the elderly, the handicapped, the weak and infirm, those most vulnerable to an attacker.

Existing "gun control" laws, which might be more accurately called "victim disarmament" laws, should be repealed, and the bureaucracies which exist to enforce them abolished. Restrictions such as waiting periods, bans on carrying concealed weapons, and requirements for registration or permits should be eliminated. There should be no prosecution of individuals for exercising their rights of self-defense.

The right to self-defense also means the right of a community to organize private security for its protection. Numerous private residential subdivisions, neighborhood associations, mobile home and resort communities, hotel and apartment complexes, have already established private security forces. Existing legal barriers to community self-defense and private security arrangements should be repealed.

5. Address the Root Causes of Crime

The root causes of crime are no mystery. As Peter Greenwood, a criminal justice expert with the RAND Corporation explains, "We know the risk factors for violence and what creates it. Kids being born into poverty, to parents who can't take care of them." It is our current social welfare system that has created the risk factors that breed crime.

Nearly all social scientists agree that there is a direct link between out-of-wedlock births and social problems such as crime and drug abuse. For example, one study found that children raised in single-parent families are one-third more likely to exhibit anti-social behavior. Another study found that, holding other variables constant, black children from single-parent households were twice as likely to commit crimes as black children from a family where the father was present. With the rate of out-of-wedlock births now over 22% among white women and over 60% among blacks, increased violence and crime is virtually inevitable.

At the same time, social scientists link the skyrocketing rate of out-of-wedlock births with the availability of welfare. The Department of Health and Human Services found that a 50% increase in welfare benefits led to a 43% increase in out-of-wedlock births. A second study found that an increase in welfare benefits of $200 per month per family increased the rate of out-of-wedlock births among teenagers by 150%.

This is not to say that a woman will choose pregnancy as a means to go on welfare. But, by removing the economic consequences of out-of-wedlock births, welfare has removed a major incentive to avoid pregnancy. A decade ago Charles Murray called for a radical solution to this problem, "scrapping the entire federal welfare and income-support structures." Time has shown Murray to be right.

Consider another factor: government schools that fail to provide young people with the skills to earn a living in today's world. The statistics on American education are bad enough overall, but in America's inner cities public schools have failed completely -- dropout rates exceed 50% and those who complete school are often unable to read their diplomas. The public schools are "monopoly bureaucratic institutions, politically controlled in districts so large as to be virtually immune from political pressure, certainly pressure from uneducated and unorganized parents."

While wealthy and middle-class parents can escape failed school systems, either moving to better school districts or sending their children to private schools, poor parents and their children are left behind. Only by guaranteeing every parent the right to choose their child's school can we improve the opportunity for inner city children to get the education and skills necessary to have a future besides crime.

But, even with adequate skills, poor inner city youth often cannot find work because government tax and regulatory policies have so limited the opportunity to start a business or create jobs. We must offer inner city youths hope for a future other than crime. This means repealing regulations and taxes that stand in the way of entrepreneurs who seek to open new businesses or expand existing ones.

Poverty, poor family structure, and lack of educational opportunity are not excuses for crime. But, we would be hopelessly naive to believe that we can solve our crime problem unless we act to alleviate those conditions.

Conclusion

No one denies that crime is a serious problem in America today. But, rather than protecting us and keeping our streets safe, current government policies are the primary reason the crime problem is growing worse.

The government is failing to protect us from violent criminals, while squandering the taxpayer's money on drug prohibition and similar activities. The government pushes victims aside in the criminal justice system, and threatens to create new victims by disarming law-abiding Americans. Meanwhile government welfare, education, tax and regulatory policies create a breeding ground for new criminals. It is a recipe for disaster, and the current crime bill is just more of the same.

The Libertarian Party offers a better way -- an approach to criminal justice and the underlying causes of crime that is smart, compassionate and tough. It is an approach that will make our streets safe again.