To Be Sure, Crime is Complex

Times Gazette City Editor Katie Wright’s Feb 29th article “Drug, theft arrests on the rise as heroin use surges” caused “shock and awe” in my household. The demographer in me screamed “Those numbers can’t be right!” The statistics presented should cause great concern, great uproar and great calls for change. Highland’s Sheriff Office had more calls for service than we have population, more 911 calls than there are homes, and they arrested more than 8% of the population between 15-65. Scary stuff.

Although there were only 112 arrests for aggravated possession of drugs (about 5%), the sheriff said “80 to 90 percent” of all the crimes are “directly related to trafficking in drugs”. The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Federal Government since 1971 reported the rate of current illicit drug use among persons aged 12 or older was 9.4% in large metropolitan counties, and 3.7% in rural counties. Is Highland that much more depraved?

The illicit drugs with the highest levels of abuse were marijuana, pain relievers and cocaine – heroin was much smaller. Most illicit drug users are employed and do not commit crimes to pay for the drugs.  Over one half of the nonmedical users of illicit prescription drugs got them “from a friend or relative for free”, while only 4.4% got pain relievers from a drug dealer. These are not 80-90% statistics, or is Highland a major drug capital?

Yes, using theft to fund drug addiction is a problem, and examples of users needing $30,000 a year to fund drug habits have often been given.  To make such amounts of money from stolen goods police suggest multiplying by three – on the basis that stolen goods will fetch about 1/3 of their normal value. Similarly, as a multiple victim of metal theft I have been disappointed by the easy and limited explanations for the rise in metal thefts regularly proffered by officials, illegal drug use. These accounts cannot be true. Crystal meth users, appear to be linked with air-conditioning units to obtain the copper coils and cooling cores to use the anhydrous ammonia inside to manufacture methamphetamine, but, the number and percentage of current users of methamphetamine are lower than from 2002; yet metal theft is up over 300%.

Understanding the relationship between drugs and crime is about keeping matters in perspective rather than falling for media or sheriff scare stories. Criminologists emphasize the important distinction between criminality and crime. Criminality is identifying what factors make an individual more or less likely to commit crime, such as one’s parents, neighborhood, socioeconomic status, drug addiction, etc. Poverty, unemployment and social exclusion are often underlying factors rather than the drug use itself. Many people commit crimes in order to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. If these are not the answers then we should abandon Highland because we are over-run with drug-crazed criminals.

Focusing on criminality (drug use) rather than the crime fails to explain why the criminal engages in a particular crime. Why is the meth head stealing copper coils instead of rose bushes out of yards or power tools from hardware stores? Why is metal theft even such a big issue all of a sudden? Well, the rise in metal prices has made it more economically beneficial to take the risks associated with stealing certain metals from certain locations. That, at least, starts to bring us closer to concerns with the crime rather than the criminal, but crime policy can’t really do much about world metal prices, so in the case of metal theft and drug use, even if drug use causes metal theft, new drug policies or drug enforcement practices are not likely to appreciably reduce metal theft.

The propensity to commit a crime is also mediated by the opportunities to actually do so. A person may want to sell counterfeit handbags, for example, but if no one will buy them, he’s out of luck no matter how strong his pro-crime proclivities. The ability to convert stolen property into cash plays an important part in whether thieves continue to offend, and scrap yards provide that specialized “sellers” market. The nature of the product, moreover, coming often in pieces, makes it difficult to distinguish between stolen and legitimate items. Studies have shown that the number of scrap yards in a city correlates with that city’s rate of metal thefts and crime. All Highland county bellwethers – I can count 5 scrap metal places in Greenfield alone.

Crime remains a silent contender for the number one domestic ill. It won’t go away. Criminal experts are prone to explain this by saying that crime is “intractable,” that there is little we can do. This claim is false. Crime is complex, to be sure, because it involves factors beyond law enforcement such as the strength of the family, neighborhoods, schools, and churches. Motivated criminals abound. Most importantly, it is the form their crimes take that changes, and that is what we must address to reduce crime – officials can reduce crime by making crime too unprofitable to practice.

Communities struggling with crime may find it difficult to convince these public officials that the current problem, metal theft, is serious.

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