Crime: America’s popular hard-line approach is leading to a decline in rates

David vs. David

American citizens are not amused by crime and they are somewhat more tolerant of soft drugs than a generation ago, but they're still not ready for decriminalization, let alone legalization.

Good numbers of American citizens strongly support the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach to crime management. And strong majorities endorse capital punishment (comparable support exists in Canada but will never surmount the politically-correct chattering class aversion to life-taking). Somehow Canadians feel morally superior about Karla Homolka becoming a mother and Paul Bernardo taking his ease in a Club Fed prison — or Colonel Russell Williams "suffering" life imprisonment after multiple rapes and murders. Is there a Canadian who would bet their pension that "life" will mean death in prison (other than being murdered by another inmate) for Bernardo/Williams?

Instead, if there is a baseline American attitude toward capital punishment, the view is it cures recidivism.  There was substantial satisfaction when we executed Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.  And there was equal satisfaction with the execution of "Washington sniper" John Allen Muhammad for 10 killings.  And not a tear was shed for the extrajudicial execution of Mohamed bin Laden — just regret that took 10 years to find and kill him.

Does this attitude fly in the face of sociologists claiming crime is declining, incarceration is disproportionately expensive (especially for "death row" convicts), and prison only makes criminals more skilled by learning techniques from other criminals? Indeed, it does.

Alternatively, one can easily conclude that crime has fallen for multiple reasons, not the least being "three strikes" rulings and more intensified policing. If numbers in prison are rising, they are not committing crimes. Our attitude is "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime."  But none of those sociologists seem to count the societal costs these criminals would be inflicting if not incarcerated, either directly with robberies or indirectly with assaults and the concurrent fears of the law-abiding.  Prisons are expensive, but crime is more so.  Perhaps a criminologist should not be permitted to pontificate until after being mugged.

Which leads us to drugs — or "mind altering substances."

For two generations drug users have been arguing various drugs like marijuana are no more dangerous than … you name it: Alcohol, fatty foods, exceeding the highway speed limit or not wearing a helmet playing hockey. And they say that tens of millions have used pot without ill effects — and now we have great photos of the young Obama higher than a kite. But does this make him a role model for youth — and what will he say to his daughters?

Indeed, the United States isn't even close to legalizing drugs, not even marijuana, let alone more powerful substances such as cocaine, crack, heroin, or morphine, not to mention the pharmacological wonders of LSD, PCP, Ecstasy, speed, or whatever is next out of the laboratory. We are not even really comfortable with medical marijuana supplied by certified doctors in limited amounts.

Perhaps the attitude is puritanical, perhaps fearful, perhaps practical. Recent testing suggests today's marijuana is more powerful than that consumed by "Summer of Love" youth. It is not your daddy's high, regardless of his stories from Woodstock or 1960s San Francisco. Instead, experiments indicate distinctly negative effects on the IQs of still developing minds (yes, teenagers). But try telling this to youth that know it all without recourse to IQ.

Additionally, Americans have some practical concerns. Impaired driving/flying/etc. is fairly easy to detect if the offending substance is alcohol. There is not, however, a quick and easy highway stop test for marijuana.  Perhaps more fundamental is the recognition that marijuana is a "gateway" drug; not every pot user graduates to hard drugs, but rarely is there a hard drug user who hasn't done pot. And there is a (please don't laugh/snicker) a concern that society weakens with extensive drug use (opium-addicted 19th century China is a case in point).

Canadian attitudes are obviously different; one can conclude that were it not for concern of severely negative U.S. pushback/retaliation, Ottawa would legalize or at least decriminalize small-scale/personal marijuana use. Indeed, marijuana has been effectively decriminalized for personal use in British Columbia — perhaps partly driven by calculations that 90 per cent of B.C.'s crop is exported to the U.S. at a profit of billions. Gee whiz, if the United States legalized marijuana, Canada would lose a lucrative (tax free) export market.

But money isn't everything — perhaps higher gasoline tax would raise the same amount as taxing marijuana.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.