CC: One of the really wholesome things about your research is the fact that you are looking at the community rather than the political system for solutions to the problem of urban crime.

PJL: Lynn Curtis refers to this as an above-level philosophy, as opposed to the traditional public policy in this area, which has been a “trickle-down” philosophy. The average intelligent citizen who reads the New York Times consistently gets bombarded by the notion that the solution lies in government policy. Not only is that not the best way, but it certainly isn’t the only way.  I come from a very traditional family—my father’s a naval officer, and the notion of discipline and service was instilled in me. Those things are important, but there are things which liberals embrace that also are important, that make us more human—this notion of caring, for example.

CC: Is caring really a left-wing issue, I wonder? It’s true that if you look at the formal ideology of the right wing of the Republican Party and the formal ideology of the left wing of the Democratic Party, liberal Democrats say they are the party of compassion whereas the Republicans are the party of self-reliance and competition. But if you look just at ordinary people—conservative people, not conservative politicians—they display a good deal of compassion and do not limit their charity to within their family, neighborhood, and community, nor to writing a check to the United Way. On the other hand, many aggressive liberals out to save the world in public would never lift a finger to help a sick neighbor.

PJL: You’re exactly right.  The rhetoric is often confusing and superficial.  In the late 70’s we conducted a series of studies and looked at why people engage in anticrime activities. What we concluded was that socioeconomic status highly correlates with what people do against crime. If you are on the higher levels of the socioeconomic status ladder, you have more time to volunteer, you’re acculturated in that mentality. And that is one of the reasons why suburbs showed a more proactive “nip it in the bud” approach to crime prevention. They were able to marshal responses much more quickly than inner-city areas. But in inner-city Chicago neighborhoods these people do need help from the outside, but the answers aren’t going to come from the outside. They can make significant progress over the next 10-20 years, if you    provide    them    some    basic assistance—not enough   so that they become dependent on it.  In the 70’s millions of dollars were spent on anticrime programs. In a sense, the money was so easily forthcoming to some of these organizations that it killed them.They became too dependent on the government.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Authority Commission is holding hearings to decide how to spend the four or five million dollars the state is going to get from the Feds on criminal justice and anticrime programs. Most of the people who were there on the day I testified were saying we need a rape center, we need a spouse-abuse center, we need a gang-prevention unit, we need a drug center. My point was—and I think the commissioner didn’t know what to do with it—that they should cut that money up into a lot of little pieces; give local groups the opportunity to have some support. The groups must, at the same time, show that they have some resources, enough that additional funds will finally make it possible to do something.  I feel sure, by the way, that isn’t the way the money is going to be spent.

Most of our anticrime resources are allocated according to the “trickle­down” philosophy. The National Sheriffs Association, for example, has been promoting the Neighborhood Watch program since the early 1970’s. In some instances, local police departments have been able to organize communities around the crime issue and keep a Neighborhood Watch program going for a few years. But more often than not, the program goes nowhere. The police go out and contact someone in the neighborhood, who invites neighbors from all around. They have one meeting; they sort of get together and say, “Yea, we’re gonna do something.” The police officer leaves and nothing happens. The effort fails because crime in most communities is not an ever-present phenomenon. The more successful programs that actually do get people involved are usually part of some existing organization, a general effort to improve the quality of life. At some point crime becomes an issue and thus crime prevention is put on their agenda.

We have a local group in southeast Evanston called the Southeast Evanston Neighbors, which covers about a mile-square. The group was formed over some incidents of theft. But right up front it was clear that theft wasn’t going to be the sole issue. Since then they have become involved very closely with efforts to revitalize the business community. The streets of the commercial strip have been repaved and new lighting has gone in. Parks are cleaned up. The reason that this group has survived, I believe now for five years, is this multipurpose focus.

When we look to see where valuable anticrime activities occur, a lot of times they are just a part of some social-action group at a church or the local PTA. What our research is suggesting then is that police departments would make better use of their time if they went out to churches and to PTA’s and encouraged those people to put anticrime issues on their agendas.

CC: Isn’t it part of a widespread problem now to assume that we’re not responsible for our lives—for our families, our communities, or anything else but that we should let the government do it?

PJL: We face the same problem in education. We say, why aren’t the schools educating our children? We know that good schools are important, but ultimately it’s the parents who matter most. The correlation between achievement of a child and the quality of a school is less than the correlation between the achievement of the child and the quality of the parenting of that child. There is a useful parallel in the medical profession. We’ve finally started to see a younger crop of doctors, who are beginning to say that our health depends on what you and I do at home and what our families do. When things go wrong, we have doctors and hospitals. I see the direct parallel with crime. Yes, we need good police departments; we need more prisons (and I do believe we need more prisons).  But, that’s not going to solve the problem for us.

CC: You bring up this analogy with medicine. Isn’t much of the language of criminal justice derived from the idea of therapy?

PJL: That was especially prevalent in the sphere of corrections. We went through the phase that persons had to be humane and that you were going to cure the offender. We found that either the programs that tried to cure the offender never worked or were never implemented. By the late 70’s you started hearing people say that the purpose of prison was to detain—to take people out of commission and forget this notion of rehabilitation. That rehabilitation, if it works, is fine, but that isn’t really what our mandate is. Our mandate and our bottom line is that we’re going to keep you people out of commission. . . .

There are times when the offense is so horrendous that there’s nothing short of life imprisonment. The person has given up his right to freedom for the rest of his life. Personally, in an ideal way I’m not comfortable with the notion of killing people. But we have to have prisons and there are many thousands of offenders that have to be sent to prison.

CC: What would you do with multiple offenders who continue to kill, even when they are in prison?

PJL: There has to be some facility that is secure. I don’t know, I wonder whether we will get to the point of putting the ball and chain back on. But again, people like that are a small distribution of offenders.

CC: But that’s what people are most afraid of—the lunatic, compulsive killer.

PJL: There’s been a lot of psychological research on how people cope with victimization. We’re all much more afraid of being killed by a stranger than by our wife or husband, even though we are more likely to be murdered by someone known to us. But we interpret the unpredictability of strangers as a threat. And that’s probably why whites are so nervous around Blacks. Most whites haven’t been around Blacks to know that they are human beings too.

CC: Fear of the unknown may explain what seem to be greater racial tensions in the North than in the South. In his essay “Below the Smith and Wesson Line,” John Shelton Reed pointed out to what extent violence in the South occurred between people who knew each other. In the old days, I suppose, many of our personal disagreements would have been settled by an informal bargaining process.

PJL: There are attempts to formalize the process by neighborhood resolution centers that are being set up. Given the fact that we have 250 million people in this country, we are going to have a large number of people who go out of control and must be kept away from the rest of us. But the fact that a less punitive and more caring community-based program might not work for that type of offender doesn’t mean that the program is wrong.

CC: Should we base all of our social controls on the 5 or 10 percent minority who simply can’t live in a civilized society? Is it right then to inflict a police state upon ourselves because of a tiny minority?

PJL: I see clearly that that’s a point I should have tried to make—what is the price we are going to pay for our security? But unless we are willing to put in the effort ourselves, the alternative is a police state—that I don’t believe we want.