The opinion pages of The Advocate and The Times-Picayune have voiced loud solutions to the increase in violent crime in New Orleans. Loud is fine if it says something worth hearing. One opinion by James Gill, “Crime is up and incarceration is down. Maybe that’s not a coincidence,” posits that a low incarceration rate breeds more violent crime and vice versa. For the bulk of Democrats, Republicans, and the media, “getting tough on crime” has been the “common sense” antidote to crime. It’s no coincidence rugged enforcement is such a darling since it’s been the major tenet in the prevailing theory guiding law enforcement.
“Broken Windows” theory holds that law enforcement can curtail major crimes by strictly addressing lesser crimes: Every ticket for a broken brake light may stop a mugging; every arrest for cannabis cookies might thwart a murder. By this theory, a large incarceration rate indicates a large number of preempted violent crimes. “Good guys with guns battling bad guys with guns” is terribly dramatic. Siccing the brawny law on “evil-doers” makes for good copy.
While Broken Windows is politically handy, it’s obsessed with controlling the criminal tendencies it sees as innate in the public. Criminality is this throbbing constant in the population, straining to unleash chaos. What the theory ignores is that crime is not a constant compulsion but is, in large part, motivated by deprivation. A petty crime is not an infallible harbinger of a bloodier, more brutal one.
Even the hardest enforcement of the law can’t fortify people’s material lives, and people need some evidence that our social contract is something more than a run-on sentence condemning them to a life of destitution and despair because of the class they were born into. If the real intention is to fight crime, we should consider slapping a macho chokehold on poverty. It might give a lot of people the chance to breathe.
In a presentation for the Bureau of Governmental Research’s Breakfast Briefing Series on Public Safety, Jeff Asher, the co-founder of AH Datalytics, says New Orleans needs 100 to 200 more police to increase response times. Nationally, crime is down; but violent crime is up. In the last two years, gun violence has sharply increased in New Orleans, but unfortunately for the hoosegow enthusiast, the rise has been a national trend and does not correlate with the lower incarceration rate in New Orleans. That should be of some interest to those like Gill who conclude there is a direct causation.
In the same presentation, Lamar Gardere, Executive Director of The Data Center, braces his reason for the rise of crime with data on the economic conditions in New Orleans. Poverty and inequality are the dominant factors in the creation of crime; and, in the case of New Orleans, race is a factor. His research shows that economic circumstances have been more vicious to minorities, particularly to Black families, who have had to deal with Jim Crow.
Comparative data shows employment rates have risen for men and women in most demographics during the past four decades but have fallen for Black men, from 63% to 52%. The median income for white families in 2016 was $67,884 and $35,863 for Hispanic families. But for Black families, the median income was $25,324. Today, fully 31% of Black families live in poverty. The wages for more than half of Black families in New Orleans is less than $25,000 a year. In 2016, a living wage for one adult supporting a child was $22.89 an hour. Now that living wage is more than $33.00 an hour.
Since poverty places people in increasingly desperate circumstances, Gardere concludes that poverty causes crime. All things considered, it might make sense to pay people wages that keep them afloat. As it stands, low wages hold their heads underwater.
For the most part, these are remedies beyond a municipal administration’s ability to enact. It’s not a “politically correct” opinion, which means it is utterly correct. Thanks to our brassbound legislature, the city cannot even legally raise the minimum wage. It must happen at the national level.
Wealth equality is not a “pie in the sky” dream. They serve that pie in Norway. The Scandinavians have smarter economies geared to benefit their citizens. In the Scandinavian model, large swathes of the economy are publicly owned, and the economy is a key influence in the happiness and well-being of its citizens. The happiest place on earth doesn’t wear mouse ears—it’s Finland. And Scandinavia’s happiness is reflected in the crime rates. For instance, the murder rate in the US was 7.8 homicides for every 100,000 people in 2020. In that same year, the homicide rate was 15.8 per 100,000 people in Louisiana. In Norway there were 0.57 homicides per 100,000 people. And that was a bad year for Norway.
In a study published by The People’s Policy Project, Nathaniel Lewis, after examining national data, found that mass incarceration has been the “systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race” in terms of arrests, but “even controlling for class,” Black people have suffered much more devastating jail and prison time. Lewis’ prescription is to expand the welfare state to inhibit the despair that creates crime. He recommends single-payer health care, high wages, a universal basic income, universal childcare, affordable housing, and free, universal education. And I would add unions.
The US has 2.3 million people locked up, more than any other country in the world. This is not evidence of an inordinate number of bad people. It’s evidence of a miscreant state. Instead of a functioning welfare state that meets people’s needs, we have a police state patrolling the chaos created by an unforgiving economy.
Poverty itself is a kind of crime. It offends our cozy ideological assumptions. Having to actually see the impoverished makes us antsy. In California, a state we commonly think of as ultra-liberal, major municipalities are cracking down on the unhoused. In this case, force is the solution to an economic problem. While the Los Angeles police are herding the homeless into box cars, the Finnish are creating housing for people who need it.
When talking about poverty and crime, perverse assumptions are useful footings from which to force the blame on individuals and not the systems that lord over them. As part of a national catechism, we hold that our economy is a level playing field, where anyone willing to work hard can prosper. Poverty and crime are explained away by pointing to some inferiority in character or culture or genetics or race or even ontology. Of course, not all crime is caused by poverty, but if a bad seed is poor, prison is the likeliest career path. If the bad seed is a preening, narcissist son of wealth – a baby Damien – he probably won’t find himself “cuffed and stuffed.” He might wind up trying to buy Twitter.
Ronald Reagan golly-gee-wilikered us into thinking if wealth wasn’t taxed, money would rain down on the rest of us. It shouldn’t shock anyone that the wealth has not trickled down. It’s been a drought. What has trickled down to the commoners are the mercenary values of business. Oil and gas companies dial up the heat till we’re a perfect medium-rare. Insurance companies are skipping town when we need them the most. And the Federal Reserve is willing to risk crashing the economy to keep wages low, when wages aren’t the problem.
It is reprehensible that teens maimed and killed Linda Frickey for the tiny bit of money they may have gotten for her car. But when chemical plants fog people with chlorine gas or ethylene oxide, leading to cancer that eats their lives, there is no manhunt for the board of directors. When the poor kill for profit, it makes headlines. When the powerful kill for profit, it makes quarterly earnings.
Lamar Gardere quotes the Emperor Marcus Aurelius saying, “Poverty is the mother of crime.” If the stoic imperator is correct, then we must reckon with a long history of economic policy that has consciously created poverty. Poverty is a national policy, and it’s a crime.
The best strategy for the prominent, who sit in fat chairs and go about the business of creating or defending the policies that have crippled our moral standing and wrecked our material lives, is to blame “defund the police,” Black Lives Matter, or the radical left. When that necessary piece of fiction is well digested and the public is convinced that the only solution to crime is force, they can lean back in their plump chairs for a moment. After that, they can get back to setting more baby Damiens in highchairs.
Leo Lindner taught English composition for three years at Nicholls State University until the extravagant riches lavished upon him by the University of Louisiana System weighed on his conscious so heavily it encouraged him to take a position as a “mud engineer” in the oilfield. He worked on the Deepwater Horizon for 5 years with some of the finest people he will ever know. He is now retired and lives with his excellent wife, Sue.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.