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Body Count–Moral Poverty and How to Win America';s War against Crime and Drugs

By William J. Bennett, John J. DiIulio, Jr., and John P. Walters

Body Count.gifBody Count equates America's troubles involving crime and drugs with moral poverty.

271 pages
Simon & Schuster (1996)

Reviewed by: Judge Anthony J. Mohr

With Body Count, former drug czar William J. Bennett and two of his colleagues, John J. DiIulio, Jr. and John P. Walters, weigh in with an ambitious work–perhaps too ambitious. Crowded into 271 pages are descriptions of today's pubescent criminals, indictments of government policy, an argument for keeping narcotic drugs illegal, and a host of recommendations ranging from micromanagement techniques to maxims of virtues.

The authors summarize the problem as follows: Violent crime in America is the worst in the industrialized world. Recent drops in the crime rate represent only a slight dip in record highs. Thanks to the swelling teenage population, the problem is going to get much worse; a "new breed of super-predators who have been raised in practically perfect criminogenic environments may soon terrorize our nation."

"It's Lord of the Flies on a massive scale," says one prosecutor. "Today's baddest boys do at least three times as much serious harm and gratuitous violence as did their crime-prone cousins and uncles of the l950s and l970s." Responding to a 1994 survey, 70 percent of African American teenagers said they knew someone who was shot in the past five years. Among whites, the rate was almost one-third. When asked, "What are your thoughts about the future?" several youths needed an explanation of the question. A New Jersey corrections officer laments, "You stand next to kid[s] in court and have the judge sentence them to 40 years without parole and they turn to you and say, "What's for lunch, officer?'...They just don't care."

The taproot of all crime, the authors conclude, is moral poverty:

The poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong; the poverty of being without parents and other authorities who habituate you to feel joy at others' joy, pain at others' pain, satisfaction when you do right, remorse when you do wrong, the poverty of growing up in the virtual absence of people who teach morality by their own everyday example and who insist that you follow suit. In the extreme, moral poverty is the poverty of growing up severely abused and neglected at the hands of deviant, delinquent, or criminal adults.

What causes moral poverty? It "results from the near-complete collapse of our character forming institutions...families, schools, and churches." When their influence declines, government can do precious little. We have reached the point where "we are asking prisons to do for many young boys what fathers used to do."

In seeking cures, the three authors unnecessarily write themselves into a bind: they need to make proposals; but perhaps because legislating morality is hard to do, they express "no desire to close on a tedious list of public policy reforms." Why not? Do their readers have such a case of Attention Deficit Disorder that they cannot study a list of procedural methods to reduce crime? If the issue merits a book, solutions deserve to be included. Indeed, the authors do cite a number of remedies that focus primarily on minor crimes but are nevertheless badly needed. Their ideas for combating alcohol abuse, which they all but prove boosts crime rates, include the following suggestions: 1) conduct systematic empirical research to determine if there is a significant relationship between high-outlet density (i.e., lots of liquor stores in a neighborhood) and crime; 2) impose stricter zoning ordinances for liquor stores; 3) limit alcoholic beverage advertising; 4) do not lower the legal drinking age.

Unfortunately, when the authors reach for the big policy statement, we get platitudes. For example, in order to restore the bonds of affection, devotion, and love between parents and children, they call for "a widespread renewal of religious faith and the strengthening of religious institutions." This is why, ironically, Body Count may end up being remembered not as a conceptual breakthrough but as a collection of small adjustments that the system needs to make in the way it handles small crimes.

Bennet, DiIulio, and Walters observe that when voters rail against crime, they often are thinking about misdemeanors. Misdemeanors represent the "quality of life crimes." In 1995, New York City Police Chief William J. Bratton wrote:

[With] rare exceptions, residents, even in the highest crime areas, usually do not talk about murder, robbery, rape and the other violent crimes that make the headlines. They are frequently more concerned about...street prostitution, low-level drug dealing, underage drinking, blaring car radios and a host of other quality-of-life crimes that contribute to a sense of disorder and danger on the street. These are the crimes which people see every day, and which they want the police to combat. Naturally residents want the police to apprehend murderers, robbers and rapists so that they are convicted and imprisoned. But people will not feel safe in their neighborhoods again until the police are also addressing the so-called low-level crimes that undermine people's quality of life.

Bratton anticipated that if police seriously enforced misdemeanor statutes, "not only would they net lots of bad guys, but they would improve police-community relations in ways that would help reduce youth violence and other neighborhood problems." So, they started arresting subway fare-beaters, for example, and found that many of these people were carrying illegal weapons. Therefore, Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters argue that fighting moral poverty includes cleaning streets and neighborhoods of vandals, graffiti, boom-box cars, public drunkenness, and street prostitutes.

Since Bennett was George Bush's drug czar and Walters his assistant, it should not be surprising that they postulate a strong link between drugs and crime. The authors' peculiar insight, strongly buttressed with dense statistics, is that until Bill Clinton became president, the United States was winning the war on drugs. By 1992, overall illegal drug use was less than half what it was at its measured peak in 1979. Even more significant, among high school seniors the decline from 1985 to 1992 was 81 percent:

To put these developments into a larger context, consider: this decline in illegal drug use marks the most successful attack on a serious social problem in the last quarter century. Think for a moment what the reaction would be today if we diminished by 50 to 80 percent the high school dropout rate, out of wedlock births, the spread of HIV, or the rate of violent crime.

The authors claim that since 1992, this country has endured the greatest increase in drug use ever measured. President Clinton is accused of being "indifferent, detached, unengaged," making it impossible to "sustain a visible, national moral imperative against drugs." Maybe. But remember that Bennett was a senior adviser to the Dole campaign.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Body Count makes a worthwhile contribution to the dialogue about crime. Its position-paper prose is highly readable; its message, urgent. If we cannot reverse the crime rate, the social contract between citizen and government will break down. The signs are evident: in 1993 and again in 1994, the only public institution in which the people had less confidence than they did in the U.S. Congress was the criminal justice system.

A government that passes reams of "get tough" statutes yet allows criminals to be released without any significant punishment for their crimes "is a government well on its way to destroying public confidence in the integrity of lawmakers, in the prudence of judges, and in the competence of public administrators." Things better change fast, warn the authors, or the United States will continue to be a nation terrorized by its own children.

Anthony J. Mohr is a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge.