Forget Why

Knowing where crime happens is enough to do something about it

I hated giving this kid rides home, not because I was afraid of his neighborhood—maybe I was a little—but more because after we put him out of the car and drove off, my heart sank, as if we had just left a naked infant alone on an ice floe.

It was so bad—junkies on their backs on the bare dirt; men pissing on walls in broad daylight; fat, nasty drug dealers slouched in big Detroit felony cars with both front doors flung open. I didn't see how a child possibly could survive. But he bounced out of the car.

He was home.

A good fence, some paint, a clean yard: Is that really the difference between life and a kind of death?
A good fence, some paint, a clean yard: Is that really the difference between life and a kind of death?

That was six years ago, freshmen football at Woodrow Wilson High School, and my son wanted me to give this kid rides. After that year my son found interests other than football, but the kid from the really bad neighborhood went on to become a football player my whole family loved to watch on the field. He was an unlikely gridiron hero, short and almost scrawny, but he was a wild scrambler, ferociously hungry for the tackle. Desperate for the tackle.

After big games, my wife and I sought him out where he lurked on the edge of the celebrating crowd, alone with helmet in hand, face painted in blood and dirt, somber and tough, staring at his feet. When we told him his tackles were great, he lifted his face and grinned like a 4-year-old.

"I just do my best, sir," he told me one night on the way down Dolphin Road. "I got to. I got to be somebody."

The word from my son at the end of their senior year was that this kid had won a football scholarship to a small college somewhere and would be going on.

He had already been on my mind lately because his neighborhood is the site of a huge redevelopment project combining public housing and new private single-family homes. And then I ran into him. He was busing tables in a restaurant where I met a guy for lunch.

He remembered me and mumbled a few words about how he'd gotten into "a little bit of trouble" and lost the scholarship. I gave him my business card and suggested maybe I could help think of something.

He called that evening. Some kind of mishap, an emergency, and he needed $20. I drove back to the restaurant and gave him $40. He called the next evening. Another mishap, totally unrelated to the first. Needed another $20. I said no.

He called two or three times more. Needed $20. I told him not to call again. I asked someone who had known him in high school if she knew what he was doing. She couldn't be sure but said the word out there was heroin.

Annual crime numbers came out last week showing that for the eighth straight year Dallas has the highest crime rate of cities of a million or more population. Every once in a while, in a fit of masochism, I try to read academic literature on why some young people turn to "deviant lifestyles" and others do not. Last time I gave up on this effort, I had gotten as far as a book called A General Theory of Crime by Travis Hirschi and Michael R. Gottfredson published in 1990. It was the ruling authority at the time.

The book debunks all of the common wisdom (i.e., my wisdom) about root causes. Decades of scientific study by a host of experimenters have shown little or no truth in most of the dearly held beliefs of popular culture about who turns to crime and drugs and why.

If you define crime broadly so that everything is included, the basic tendency of young people to turn toward crime or drug use or other deviant behavior is the same across lines of class, ethnicity and income. The differences happen after they get caught.

The other thing Gottfredson and Hirschi demonstrated was that deviant people have the same motivations for what they do as law-abiding people. They want the same things—money, fame, glory, love, revenge, sex, respect, security, escape from pain. They just want it now. The easy way. They want to smash and grab for it. Hirschi and Gottfredson said the key determining factor in crime is low self-control.

Apparently since I last checked in on them, Hirschi and Gottfredson have been fending off a lot of attacks from other academics. Professor Jeffrey Ackerman in the sociology department at Texas A&M tried to explain to me in an e-mail what the critics have said about A General Theory of Crime: "How do you know that someone has low 'self-control'? Well, they commit crimes, and therefore we know. What is crime 'caused' by? Low self-control."

OK, so there's a certain circularity there. It's what the critics call a tautologytrying to prove something with itself. But Ackerman stressed—and I found this same theme in some of the articles I managed to blunder through last week—that A General Theory of Crime still has one big thing going for it: It provides an extremely "stable" or consistent predictor of criminality.

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