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Another Pyrrhic Victory

What the war in Iraq can teach us about the war on crime

(by Jens Soering, Justice Reflections (U.K), Spring 2010)

King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a city-state in ancient Greece, was one of the greatest generals of his age.  In 280 B.C. he executed an amphibious invasion of southern Italy with 25,000 soldiers and 20 military elephants, using nothing more than wooden galleys.  Then he defeated the invincible Roman legions at Heraclea in Lucania and, in 279 B.C., trounced them again at Asculum in Apulia.

But these two victories cost Pyrrhus 7,500 men, almost one third of his entire force.  When others tried to congratulate him on his triumph, he “replied … that one other such [victory] would utterly undo him,” Plutarch tells us.  Wisely, Pyrrhus packed up his shattered army and returned to Greece.

As the U.S. military begins to withdraw from Iraq in the coming months, America would do well to reflect upon King Pyrrhus’ example.  Of course there will be “victory” parades for the returning troops, and medals will rain onto soldiers’ chests as if they were confetti.  Before relief and euphoria sweep us all away, however, let us not lose sight of the fact that the tactical success of a well-organized retreat hardly compensates for the strategic failure of the war as a whole.

This article will not provide an in-depth analysis of the many ways in which Operation Iraqi Freedom has inflicted long-term damage to U.S. national interests; for one thing, some of those negative consequences are still unfolding.  Instead, we will turn to another of America’s wars and see whether it bears any parallels to the debacle of Baghdad. With a little imagination, we just might be able to use the Iraq war as a kind of lens through which we can catch a  clearer view of another pyrrhic victory.

So, which war is currently enjoying a tactical success even as it spins into strategic defeat?  The war on crime, first declared by President Richard M. Nixon in 1973.

At first glance, this conflict seems to be going well:  the U.S. Department of Justice reports that the overall crime rate is “the lowest … in more than 30 years” and, in fact, is falling still further.[i]  But at what cost?  Between 1973 and today, the number of Americans behind bars rose from roughly 300,000 to 2.38 million, giving the Land of the Free the highest incarceration rate in the world.[ii]

Yet locking up those millions of human beings did not improve public safety at all:  remember, the crime rate today is no lower than during Nixon’s presidency, when the war on crime began.[iii]  This is a “victory”?

The parallels to the war in Iraq are compelling.  Having spent over $600 billion[iv] on that conflict so far, America has not reduced the global threat from Islamo-fascism at all:  al-Qaeda and the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan and nearly have Pakistan in its grip.  Much like America’s crime rate, the jihadist movement has displayed a surprising and depressing resiliency.  To understand why both the war in Iraq and the war on crime have been less-than-successful, let us review some of the popular catchwords from Operation Iraqi Freedom – Mission accomplished, Shock and awe, etc. – and search for patterns and parallels between the two conflicts.

Faulty intelligence

The primary reason why the U.S. attacked Iraq was to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  In his pre-invasion address to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary of State Colin Powell focused almost exclusively on the strong and imminent threat posed by these weapons, because only the gravest of dangers can justify a preemptive military strike under international law.  Yet Iraq turned out not to have possessed WMDs since the mid-1990s, according to several post-war investigations.  In the eyes of much of the rest of the world, an error of this magnitude cannot be explained by mere incompetence on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies; it must have been deliberate deception.

If European and Arab suspicions about America’s motives for invading Iraq seem absurd, consider a similar case of “faulty intelligence” in the war on crime.  In December of 2006, U.S. news outlets widely and excitedly reported a rise in the violent crime rate.  The New Year’s Eve edition of the NBC Nightly News devoted its “in depth” segment to the subject, for instance, and Time magazine covered “the next crime wave” in a gritty five-page photo spread.[v]

But a closer look at the FBI’s report Crime in the United States, 2006 reveals that the number of offenses actually declined.  Although the violent crime rate did indeed rise by 1.9%, the non-violent (property) crime rate also dropped by 1.9%.[vi]  The decrease in the latter more than offset the increase in the former, because there are roughly 7.5 times as many non-violent offenses committed as violent ones.[vii]  Thus there were in fact roughly 155,000 fewer crimes committed in 2006 than in 2005.[viii]  The bad news is that a greater proportion of those offenses were violent.

Even the latter statement is subject to a major caveat, however:  almost the whole rise in the violent crime rate was due to a 7.2% spike in armed robberies.  The number of rapes, assaults and murders, meanwhile, changed only marginally.[ix]

So why did newspapers like the Washington Post claim in late 2006 that “the historic drop in the U.S. crime rate has ended and is being reversed”?[x]  In part to sell newspapers, no doubt – but also because federal grants to state and local law enforcement “have been cut by more than $2 billion since 2002.”  According to the Post, this prompted “many police chiefs and law enforcement officials [to] complain that the Bush administration retreated from fighting traditional crime in favor of combating terrorism.”[xi]  They did more than just complain, notes USA Today:  “the International Association of Chiefs of Police … has been pushing for more crime-fighting funds,” and hyping the violent crime rate helped advance that cause.[xii]  Why muddy the picture by pointing out that the total number of criminal offenses is falling by 155,000 per year?

Note, however, that the International Association of Chiefs of Police did not lie overtly, just as the Bush administration did not simply fabricate CIA reports suggesting Iraq had WMDs.  In both cases, policymakers “only” cherrypicked intelligence to promote their agendas.  But it is very hard to win wars that are based on false premises.

Mission accomplished!

On May 1, 2003, on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, President Bush announced that major combat operations in Iraq were over.  Above his head flew the now-infamous “Mission accomplished!” banner, which has meanwhile become a symbol of the failure of U.S. military planners to prepare to fight the sectarian conflict that followed the invasion of Iraq.  This interpretation of events is greatly mistaken, however, because it ignores the more fundamental error of failing to understand what the “mission” really was.

In any war, the overarching aim is not merely to win battles, but to achieve a sustainable post-conflict peace.  The problem is that military force alone cannot accomplish this mission.  During World War II, for instance, ever greater carpet bombing of German cities actually increased the civilian population’s support for the Nazi regime.  It took the nation building of the Marshall Plan to win the war, by transforming former enemies into allies.

In the war on crime, the U.S. is committing the same error of relying exclusively on brute force to accomplish a mission that in fact requires mutual reconciliation.  Make no mistake:  a maximum security penitentiary is a necessary component of victory in this war, just as an infantry division is required to pacify Anbar Province.  But if there is no nation building going on inside that penitentiary, no Marshall Plan for the urban neighborhoods that breed crime – well, then you get a recidivism rate of 67.5%.

Read that number again:  67.5%.[xiii]  In other words, of the 672,000 inmates released from correctional centers each year,[xiv] 453,000 will get into trouble with the law again within three years.  King Pyrrhus would be proud!

Or perhaps he would merely be perplexed, since the recidivism statistic above is actually yet one more example of the confusion that arises if missions are not properly defined.  At first glance, the figure of 67.5% would seem to prove that the majority of felons are irredeemable.  But take a closer look at the 91,000 ex-inmates who violated parole and were sent back to prison in California in 2007:  only 21,000 committed new crimes, while 70,000 incurred so-called “technical violations” like failing to meet with their parole officers or changing addresses without permission.[xv]  Those 70,000 may not be angels, but are they irredeemable?  And why do we think that building more prisons will somehow lower the number of real and technical recidivists?

Social scientists have long been convinced that incarceration alone has very little impact on crime.  According to conservative criminologist James Q. Wilson, “very large increases in prison population can only produce modest reductions in crime.”[xvi]  George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a frequent commentator on CNN, believes that “it would be hard to make the case that the rising prison population has lowered the crime rate.”[xvii]  In a meta-analysis of current criminological research, the Vera Institute concluded in 2007, “The most sophisticated studies available generally agree that increased incarceration rates have some impact on reducing crime rates, but the scope of that impact is limited.”[xviii]

In its seminal Justice Kennedy Commission Report, the American Bar Association pointed out that those states that drastically raised their prison populations between 1991 and 2001 saw their crime rates reduced by smaller margins than those states that raised their prison populations only marginally.  Texas, for instance, increased its incarceration rate by 139.4% and experienced a 34.1% drop in its crime rate; but New York’s incarceration rate rose only 10.9%, while its crime rate fell 53.2%.[xix]

And in New York City, the inmate population actually dropped from 21,449 to 14,129 between 1993 and 2006, even as the homicide rate fell 70%.  “What we’ve seen in New York [City] is the fastest drop in crime in the nation,” says Corrections Commissioner Martin F. Horn, “and we did it while locking up a lot less people.”[xx]

How did New York pull off this “miracle”?  Through better police tactics (the “broken windows” model), a drop in the number of crime-prone teenagers, and a booming economy.  In other words, through the domestic equivalent of nation building.[xxi]

WMDs vs. regional destabilization

Some version of nation building might also have persuaded Saddam Hussein to be more cooperative in regard to his supposed WMD program, just as Kim Jong Il responded to economic incentives in 2008.  By choosing, instead, the military option for Iraq, the Bush administration certainly eliminated the threat of the “mushroom cloud” that featured so prominently in pre-war propaganda.  But in the process, Operation Iraqi Freedom also unleashed several new and arguably even greater dangers.

To begin with, the removal of Saddam Hussein allowed long suppressed inter-Iraqi religious animosities to erupt into a sectarian civil war which continues to this day.  Then there is the empowerment of Iran:  the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) bluntly accuses Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons, but America is too distracted and too weakened by its occupation of Iraq to address this problem.[xxii]  Finally, the U.S. State Department’s annual report on terrorism recently documented that Sunni veterans of the Iraq insurgency have returned to their home countries – Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, among others – and committed major attacks in what were once relatively peaceful nations.[xxiii]

As in Iraq, so in the war on crime:  prison may stop offenders from victimizing law-abiding citizens, but it also creates significant new problems.  For instance, there are currently 2 million boys and girls who are growing up with one or both parents behind bars.[xxiv]  One in thirty-three children has lost a father or mother to prison; for African-American kids, the figure is one in eight.[xxv]  In most cases, the incarcerated parent is the father, and his absence condemns his offspring to a childhood of many hardships and few opportunities:  kids raised by their mother alone are six times more likely to be poor than similarly situated boys and girls raised by both parents.[xxvi]

“When I come across kids not doing well in school, six out of ten will have someone in prison,” says Richmond, Virginia, school social worker Bill O’Sullivan.  Younger children sometimes regress to bed-wetting or throwing temper tantrums; older boys and girls may use drugs or skip school.  “No two kids react the same,” O’Sullivan says, but many – far too many – end up “mad at the world.”[xxvii]

If that were not bad enough, many of those impoverished children of convicts later become criminals themselves:  60% of rapists, 72.1% of adolescent murderers and 70% of all long-term inmates grew up without a father in the home.[xxviii]  A child whose parent has been incarcerated is six times more likely than other kids to wind up behind bars himself, according to testimony before the U.S. Senate.[xxix]  Thus by failing to fulfill their parental duties, prisoners are indirectly causing new crimes to be committed in the future.  And those crimes inevitably will “produce” yet more prisoners.

Moreover, convicts need not rely on their children to commit crimes for them:  according to repeated large-scale anonymous surveys, 20% of male inmates, or roughly 400,000 men, are “pressured or forced” into sex by other prisoners each year, and one in ten is raped outright.[xxx]  But “[d]ue to fear of reprisal from perpetrators, a code of silence among inmates, personal embarrassment and lack of trust in staff,” the Bureau of Justice Statistics received only 8,210 officially documented reports of such incidents in 2004.[xxxi]

“Prison destroyed me,” says one survivor of sexual assault.  “They [i.e., the inmates who raped him and infected him with HIV] took my health.  They took my manhood.  I keep on fighting.  But there are some things I’ll never get back.”  Another victim reports that “[o]n a purely emotional level, I have issues with self-confidence and trust since that day.  …  It’s something that I’ll never really recover from, no matter how hard I try.”  “The physical pain was devastating,” says a man raped at knifepoint in an Arkansas prison.  “But the emotional pain was even worse.  …  They’d stolen my manhood, my identity and part of my soul.”[xxxii]

In addition to the suffering inflicted on victims, prison rape also harms society at large because it contributes to the spread of infectious diseases among inmates who will eventually be released.  Other forms of transmission include consensual sex – 44 to 65% of convicts voluntarily participate in some form of sex – as well as tattooing and intravenous drug use with stolen syringes.[xxxiii]  Thanks to such fun-and-games, 8.1% of all New York prisoners are known to be infected with HIV, for example.[xxxiv][xxxv]

But HIV is only one problem:  other contagious diseases being bred behind bars include Hepatitis C, a fatal liver illness that has infected 39% of inmates in Virginia[xxxvi]; drug-resistant strains of syphilis and staph spreading in California’s jails[xxxvii]; and good old-fashioned tuberculosis, which killed hundreds of convicts, guards and civilians in a well-documented outbreak in New York in 1989.[xxxviii]  Every year 1.5 million people are released from jails and penitentiaries nationwide carrying potentially life-threatening illnesses.[xxxix]

Shock and awe

“Shock and awe” is what you may be feeling now, as you contemplate the unintended consequences of mass incarceration.  But in the early days of the Iraq war, “shock and awe” referred to the overwhelming power of U.S. high tech armaments as they pulverized Saddam Hussein’s conscript army.  Of course the term itself and the Pentagon-edited weapons video footage were intended to send a message to North Korea and Iran:  “See what America can do to your fellow ‘axis of evil’-members!  Behave yourselves, or your turn will come next!”

As we have learned in the meantime, however, neither North Korea nor Iran were deterred by “shock and awe” propaganda.  And in the war on crime, deterrence has not been effective either:  earlier we saw that Texas expanded it prison system thirteen times as much as New York in the 1990s (139.4% vs. 10.9%) but lowered its crime rate significantly less (34.1% vs. 53.2%).  If scaring potential offenders into obeying the law actually worked, Texas’s crime rate should have dropped thirteen times further than New York’s.

Why does prison not deter potential offenders?  Because the vast majority of criminals do not rationally calculate the consequences of their actions when they break the law.  Of those felons who get caught and go to prison, 20% are mentally ill[xl]; 37% were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their crime, while 33% were on drugs[xli]; 19% are completely illiterate and another 40% functionally illiterate.[xlii]  Add to all this the fact that the average convict’s IQ score is eight to ten points lower than the general population’s, and we can begin to understand why deterrence does not work![xliii]  Society may think tough punishments send potential offenders a warning message, but the sad truth is that most of them are too crazy, too drunk, too high, too uneducated and too dimwitted to hear that warning.

Even when criminals go to prison, they are not likely to “learn their lesson,” as law and order advocates assume.  In fact, a stay behind bars actually makes it more likely that inmates will re-offend upon release.  “[P]rison has a negative effect on offenders’ later income, employment prospects and family involvement, all of which is predictive of future criminality,” the Justice Kennedy Commission Report found.[xliv]  Many states bar ex-convicts from professions as innocuous as landscaping and barbering, and drug offenders usually cannot get food stamps or public housing assistance.  The Legal Action Center, the Urban Institute and the Sentencing Project have done much to reveal these so-called “collateral consequences” of incarceration, which make successful reentry so difficult for the 13 million Americans with felony records.[xlv]

Less commonly known are the psychological handicaps that inmates acquire as a result of their sojourn in prison.  According to the British Journal of Criminology, convicts are subject to institutionalization, a process “characteri[z]ed by apathy and reduced motivation, coupled with extreme dependency on routine and the support of the institution – which may render the man unfit to cope with the outside world upon release.”[xlvi]  Dr. Craig Haney, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, reports that some ex-prisoners configure their living spaces at home to recreate the look and feel of their cells:  “[t]he rooms were always small and dark.  …  The beds were made in the same way.  Shoes were always stacked by their bed, just like in prison.”[xlvii]

Since incarceration is meant to be a painful experience, we should not be surprised that it traumatizes many of those who are subjected to it.  And we should also not be surprised if that trauma expresses itself in a new offense.  What is surprising, perhaps, is just how frequently the experience of prison can turn non-violent offenders into violent ones.  When those felons originally convicted of drug, public order or property offenses are released, respectively 18.4, 18.5, and 21.9% will be arrested for violent crimes.[xlviii]  Those are the bitter fruits of the modern approach to corrections:  more victims in your neighborhood.

According to a new study by Professors M. Keith Chen of Yale University and Jesse M. Shapiro of the University of Chicago, “harsher prison conditions are associated with significantly more post-release crime.”  They focused on a group of federal inmates with virtually identical criminal histories, but with slightly different Bureau of Prisons (BOP) security risk scores.  Because some of these men’s scores fell just below a BOP “cut-off,” they were sent to less restrictive facilities; others, whose score fell barely above the “cut-off,” were transferred to tougher prisons.  The result?  Those convicts who did time in maximum security penitentiaries were twice as likely to re-offend within three years of release as their nearly identical counterparts who served sentences in medium security correctional centers.[xlix]

Think about that for a moment:  this is exactly the opposite of what the theory of deterrence would lead us to expect!  As it turns out, the better you treat people now, the less likely they are to mistreat you later.  Perhaps “shock and awe” is not such a good idea after all.

Collateral damage

One of the great “dirty little secrets” of warfare is that in every military conflict in history, there have been far more casualties among civilians than among combatants.  “Collateral damage” is therefore a misnomer:  killing and maiming women, children and other innocents is in fact the primary business of war, whereas killing and maiming soldiers is secondary (or collateral).

Because no one wants to acknowledge this unpleasant truth, however, America’s political leadership, military and media all focus on the number of dead GIs – roughly 4,100 – and quickly pass over the number of dead Iraqi civilians – over 150,000, according to Health Minister Ali al-Shemari.[l]  Many Iraqis perceive this as American callousness toward the suffering and death of dark-skinned foreigners; to them, there is nothing collateral about losing so many of their wives and children and grandparents.  This fundamental difference about the relative importance of civilian casualties has made winning the war in Iraq much more difficult, of course.

In the war on crime, we have a phenomenon somewhat similar to collateral damage:  roughly 400,000 prisoners who really do not belong in correctional facilities at all.  Earlier we noted that 20% of U.S. inmates, or roughly 400,000 men, women and youths, are afflicted with some variety of mental illness.  Thanks to the badly mismanaged closure of large psychiatric facilities in the 1970s and -80s, “[l]ots of people are winding up in the criminal justice system because mental health services are not available,” says Hazel Moran of the National Mental Health Association.[li]  What is this country’s largest psychiatric services provider?  The Los Angeles County Jail.[lii]

In 1955, America housed 559,000 mentally ill people in state hospitals.  If the same patient-per-capita ratio applied today, there should be 930,000 residents receiving treatment in such facilities today.  Instead there are only 60,000 patients in psychiatric hospitals; the rest are in prison or on probation.[liii]

Even behind bars, however, they definitely remain patients.  Twice a day, every day, they line up by the dozens outside every prison’s medical department to receive their psychotropic drugs at special “mental health pill calls.”  Those medications make them sufficiently docile for the guards to manage – and also for other convicts to exploit.

Want a cheap high that standard correctional urinalysis cups cannot detect?  Find yourself a mentally ill inmate and play cards with him; he will be so grateful to you for befriending him, and so dopey from his meds, that he will not notice how his gambling debt is mounting up.  When he is in hock to you for some unimaginably enormous sum – $20 say, or a whole month’s prison wages for sweeping floors – continue to play the role of friend and offer him a way out of debt!

Every time he goes to pill call, have your vic spit his psychotropic pills back into his hand and bring them to you.  Take half the pills yourself and sell the other half to your stick-man.  Meanwhile, your mentally ill buddy will need extra tobacco to get him over the shakes from missing his meds.  So you give him a few roll-ups and generously raise his debt level.

Of course your friend will eventually start to act out because he is no longer getting his psychotropic drugs.  Good Samaritan that you are, you help him fill out a sick call slip and explain to him what to say to the staff psychiatrist to get his dosage increased.  Then you let him keep a few of those extra pills to stabilize him and make a great show of how kind-hearted this is of you.  Your buddy will reward you with puppy-like devotion, trust me!

At this point, you can easily persuade him to perform a few sexual services for you and your stick-man, too.  He will hardly object:  many mentally ill people have a history of such exploitation by their caregivers from childhood onwards.  Since there is no overt threat of force, this sort of activity is considered consensual by those who try to measure the incidence of prison rape.

Hey, boys will be boys – and they are just inmates, anyway.  Collateral damage in the war on crime.

Halliburton and Blackwater and friends

In the years and decades to come, historians will have to determine whether war profiteering during Operation Iraqi Freedom was worse than in previous military conflicts or simply par for the course.  Nostalgia for “the greatest generation” has led many to forget the scandalous behavior of companies like Remington and Universal Firearms during World War II; General Ulysses S. Grant indulged in so much influence-peddling with military contractors that he literally coined the term “lobbyist”; and Homer’s magnificent propaganda aside, Helen was probably not the Greeks most important motive for attacking Troy, the richest city in Asia Minor.  To understand any war, the best place to start is with a close look at the finances.

What distinguishes the conflict in Iraq from all previous American wars is the extent to which private corporations are carrying out vital tasks once performed by the military – at enormous profit for themselves.  Who provides housing, food, water and other essentials to G.I.s in the field and even operates its own fleet of trucks to move supplies to the front line?  Not the Quartermaster Corps, but Halliburton’s spin-off KBR.[liv]  What is the second-largest troop contingent in Iraq, after the U.S. military?  Not the British Army, but private security firms such as DynCorp and Blackwater.  The Pentagon now spends $112 billion a year on contractors like these, up from $42 billion just five years ago.[lv]  And the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) spends another $42 billion on private intelligence services, up from $17.5 billion in 2000.[lvi]  According to the Wall Street Journal, all this is part of a general “movement to privatize all kinds of government security.”[lvii]

The same movement toward ever-greater privatization is also at work in the war on crime.   For corporations and guards unions, this country’s annual correctional budget of $63 billion provides multiple opportunities for enrichment.[lviii]
  • Designing and building prisons earns contractors like Heery + HLMDesign or Durrant Justice $4.3 billion per year.[lix]
  • For firms like Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo Group, operating private jails and penitentiaries is a business worth $2 billion annually.[lx]
  • Running prison infirmaries is a $2 billion-a-year industry dominated by Correctional Medical Services (CMS) and Prison Health Services (PHS).[lxi]
  • In 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, factories and call centers employing convict labor produced goods and services worth $1.5 billion.[lxii]
  • More than 747,000 Americans now depend on correctional facilities to employ them as guards, administrators, medical staff and teachers.[lxiii]  According to the Urban Institute, prisons are now “deeply integrated into the physical and economic infrastructure of a large number of American counties.”[lxiv]
  • The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has become one of the most powerful interest groups in the Golden State, negotiating a starting salary of $73,000 for its members.[lxv]
To ensure that those $63 billion keep flowing and growing each year, corporations and unions contribute lavishly to politicians of both parties. Who was the single largest recipient of campaign contributions by the Geo Group in 2005/2006?  New Mexico’s Democratic Governor Bill Richardson; he received $42,750.[lxvi]  And which state has the highest percentage of its inmates in private penitentiaries?  New Mexico, at 44%.[lxvii]  Not to be outdone by big business, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association doled out $12.4 million to Democrats and Republicans between 2000 and 2004, according to the San Jose Mercury News.[lxviii]   Might this explain why the starting salary for California prison guards is more than twice as high as the next-highest-paying state?[lxix]

Of course neither big business nor labor is doing anything illegal or even unethical.  In fact, they are helping America fight the war on crime, much as Halliburton and Blackwater are helping the U.S. fight the war in Iraq. What no one seems to have noticed, however, is that neither corporations nor unions can afford for this country to win these two wars.

If Iraq suddenly became peaceful and prosperous, for example, KBR’s and DynCorp’s services would no longer be needed. And if prisons actually turned criminals into law-abiding citizens, Correctional Corporation of America and those 747,000 prison employees would suddenly be out of business and out of work.

Literal and metaphorical wars

This article’s premise is that the pyrrhic victory in the war in Iraq can help us understand better the strategic stalemate in the war on crime. But if we go no further than to study individual errors in the execution of these two wars – faulty intelligence, collateral damage, etc. – then we have not truly grasped the fundamental, structural cause of defeat.  That basic reason is America’s penchant for attempting to solve its problems through literal and metaphorical wars.

When one nation is attacked by another, it has a right and obligation to respond militarily. But in the U.S., the term “war” has been used repeatedly over the past forty years in situations that have nothing to do with armed conflict between sovereign nations.  We have seen a war on poverty, a war on crime, a war on drugs, and most recently a war on terror.  Even as a metaphor, the term “war” was entirely inappropriate in each of these cases, because none of the “enemies” were of the type that could be defeated through targeted, defensive government action.  Poverty, crime and substance abuse have existed in every society known to humanity; they simply cannot be eradicated.  And if by “terror” we mean a violent strain of Islam, let us recall that faith always flourishes when it is attacked directly by outsiders.

Perhaps, then, we should re-examine not just the notion of war as a solution to complex problems, but the concept of victory itself.  As King Pyrrhus discovered at Heraclea and Asculum, even clear military successes can come at too high a price.  What makes him a great man is that he openly acknowledged the ambiguity of victory on the very night of his greatest triumph.

America’s “victory” in the war on crime is no such triumph.  Perhaps the time has come to negotiate an honorable peace.


About the Author

Jens Soering is the award-winning author of six books and 45 articles, most on criminal justice reform.  See


[i] Dan Eggen, “Violent Crime, a Sticky Issue for White House, Shows Steeper Rise,” Washington Post, September 25, 2007; Michael J. Sniffin, “Violent and property crimes dropped in 2007, FBI says,” Associated Press, June 10, 2008.

[ii] Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, (New York:  The New Press, 1999), pp. 82-84; Richard Willing, “Inmate Population Rises as Crime Drops,” USA Today, July 29, 2003; Connie Cass, “Prison Population Grows by 2.9% in 2003,” Associated Press, May 29, 2004; Richard Willing, “US Prison Populations on the Rise,” USA Today, May 28, 2004; Report of the Re-entry Policy Council, (Washington DC:  Council of State Governments / Urban Institute Re-entry Policy Forum, February 2005), p. xvii; and William J. Sabol, Heather Couture and Paige M. Harrison, Prisoners in 2006 (Washington, D.C.:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2007), p. 4.

[iii] Curt Anderson, “Violent crime rate for 2003 holds steady,” Associated Press, September 13, 2004; “2004 crime rate hovered at low levels,” USA Today, September 26, 2005; and see endnote 1 and text of article.

[iv] Associated Press, “House passes $162 billion compromise to fund Iraq, Afghanistan operations,” USA Today, June 20, 2008.

[v] Kathleen Kingsbury, “The Next Crime Wave,” Time, December 11, 2006.

[vi] Robert S. Mueller III, Crime in the United States, 2006, (Washington DC:  Federal Bureau of Investigations, September 24, 2007).

[vii] In 2005, there were 1,390,695 violent crimes and 10,166,159 non-violent property offenses.  See Robert S. Mueller III, Crime in the United States, 2005, (Washington DC:  September 18, 2006).

[viii] A 1.9% increase in violent crime means 27,050 more violent offenses.  A 1.9% decrease in property crime means 182,591 fewer non-violent offenses.  The net decrease in the number of violent and non-violent crimes is 155,541.  In 2006, there were 1,417,745 violent crimes and 9,983,568 non-violent offenses.

[ix] Mueller, Crime in the United States, 2006, op. cit.

[x] Dan Eggen, “Violent Crime in the U.S. Continues to Surge,” Washington Post, December 19, 2006.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Violent crime rose in first half of year,” USA Today, December 19, 2006.

[xiii] Patrick A. Langan and David J. Levin, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, (Washington DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2002).

[xiv] Bureau of Justice Statistics Press Release, “ONE IN EVERY 32 ADULTS WAS IN PRISON, JAIL, ON PROBATION, OR ON PAROLE AT THE END OF 2005,” November 30, 2006, 4:30 p.m., by Stu Smith.

[xv] James Sterngold, “Worst of the worst,” Mother Jones, July/August 2008, p. 48.

[xvi] James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, eds., Crime, (San Francisco:  Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1995), p. 105.

[xvii] Frank Green, “More prisons, less crime?,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 25, 2005.

[xviii] Don Stemen, Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2007), p. 2.

[xix] Stephen A. Salzburg, Chairperson and Editor, Justice Kennedy Commission Report, American Bar Association, August 2004, pp. 19-21.

[xx] Martin Powell, “Despite Fewer Lockups, NYC Has Seen Big Drop in Crime,” Washington Post, November 24, 2006.

[xxi] Don Stemen, Reconsidering Incarceration, op. cit; and, generally, Green, “More prisons,” op. cit.; and Ryan S. King, Marc Mauer, and Malcolm C. Young, Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship, (Washington DC:  The Sentencing Project, 2005), citing W. Spelman, “The Limited Importance of Prison Expansion,” in A. Blumstein and J. Wallman, eds., The Crime Drop in America, (Cambridge, U.K.:  Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 97-129.

[xxii] Wire reports, “U.N. agency says Iran is stepping up efforts to build nuclear arms,” Virginian Pilot, May 27, 2008.

[xxiii] Joel Brinkley, “Trends in Iraq taking a grim turn down,” Virginian Pilot, May 12, 2008.

[xxiv] “The Impact of Incarceration:  Issues Affecting Reentry,” (Washington, DC:  U.S. Department of Justice, Reentry Working Group, May 2004); Neely Tucker, “Study Warns of Tide of Released Inmates,” Washington Post, May 21, 2003.

[xxv] Sarah Karnasiewicz, “Love under lock and key,” p. 2,, citing Nell Bernstein’s All Alone in the World:  Children of the Incarcerated, (New York:  The New Press, 2005).

[xxvi] Barbara D. Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 271, No. 4, April 1993, p. 47.

[xxvii] Bill Wasson, “Helping kin cope with incarceration,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 22, 2006.

[xxviii] Charles W. Colson, Justice That Restores, (Wheaton, IL:  Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), p. 201.

[xxix] Karnasiewicz, “Love,” op. cit., p. 6.

[xxx] According to a 2000 survey of seven Midwestern states by Ohio University.  Jayne O’Donnell, “State time or federal prison?,” USA Today, March 18, 2004.  Other studies confirm these figures:  see Jens Soering, The Convict Christ – What  the Gospel Says About Criminal Justice, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2006), for more details.

[xxxi] Allen J. Beck and Timothy A. Hughes, Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2004, (Washington DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2005), p. 2.

[xxxii] Quotes compiled from Carolyn Marshall, “Panel on Prison Rape Hears Victims’ Chilling Accounts,” New York Times, August 20, 2005; Jim Herron Zamora, “Former inmates tell horror stories of rape,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 2005.

[xxxiii] Brent Staples, “Fighting the A.I.D.S. Epidemic by Issuing Condoms in the Prisons,” New York Times, September 7, 2004.

[xxxiv] HIV in Prison 2001, (Washington DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004).

[xxxv] Brent Staples, “Treat the Epidemic Behind Bars Before It Hits the Streets,” New York Times, June 22, 2004.

[xxxvi] Michael Hardy, “ACLU:  Prison Care Lacking,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 8, 2003.

[xxxvii] Staples, “Treat the Epidemic,” op.cit.

[xxxviii] Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague:  Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), pp. 523-34.

[xxxix] Jerry Seper, “Prisoners, public at health risk,” Washington Post, June 8, 2006.

[xl] Etienne Benson, “Rehabilitate or punish?”, Monitor on Psychology (American Psychological Association), Vol. 34, No. 7, July-August 2003, p. 47; see also Anna Bailey, “More police means strain on corrections system,” The Examiner (Washington DC), April 17, 2006; and Kevin Johnson, “Commission warns of harm isolation can do to prisoners,” USA Today, June 8, 2006.

[xli] Christopher J. Mumola, Substance Abuse and Treatment, State and Federal Prisons, 1997 (Washington DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997), p. 1; these figures are for state prisoners only.

[xlii] Education as Crime Prevention, O.S.I. Criminal Justice Initiative, September 1997.

[xliii] University of Cincinnati professor Francis T. Cullen, in Warren St. John, “Professors with a Past,” New York Times, August 9, 2003, p. A 13.

[xliv] Stephen A. Salzburg, Report, op. cit., p. 81.

[xlv] After Prison:  Roadblocks to Reentry, ; ; Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, Invisible Punishment:  The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, (New York:  The New Press, 2003); Salzburg, Report, op. cit., p. 82.

[xlvi] R. Sapsford, “Life-Sentence Prisoners:  Psychological Changes During Sentence,” British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 18, 1978, p.128.

[xlvii] Kevin Johnson, “After years in solitary, freedom hard to grasp,” USA Today, June 9, 2005.

[xlviii] Langan and Levin, Recidivism, op. cit.

[xlix] Richard Morin, “Time In and Time Out,” Washington Post, February 2, 2006.  The study is available both on Yale’s and the University of Chicago’s websites.

[l] Steven R. Hurst / Associated Press, “Iraqi official triples estimated civilian death toll, to 150,000,” Virginian Pilot, November 10, 2006.

[li] Dan Malone, “Cruel and Inhumane,” amnesty international, Fall 2005, p. 23.

[lii] Pete Earley, “Living with mental illness,” USA Today, May 2, 2006.

[liii] Ibid.; Johnson, “Commission warns,” op. cit.

[liv] James Risen/New York Times, “Official:  I blocked payment, got fired,” Virginian Pilot, June 17, 2008.

[lv] Richard Lardner/Associated Press, “Too many contract dollars, too few fraud investigators,” Virginian Pilot, June 13, 2008.

[lvi] Jeremy Scahill, “Blackwater’s Private Spies,” The Nation, June 23, 2008.

[lvii] Ibid.

[lviii] Kristen A. Hughes, Justice Expenditures and Employment in the United States, (Washington, DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003).

[lix] Raphael Sperry, Ariel Bierbaum, Juan Calaf, Karen Kearney, and Kathleen Monroe, “Prison Design Boycott – a Challenge to the Professional Business of Incarceration,” Prison Legal News, November 2005, p. 4, citing American Correctional Association data.

[lx] Private Adult Correctional Facility Census, 1996 and 2001 editions, quoted in Peter Wagner, The Prison Index, (Springfield, MA:  Prison Policy Initiative, 2003), p. 6.

[lxi] Paul von Zielbauer, “Prison Health Services:  As Health Care in Jails Goes Private, 10 Days Can Be a Death Sentence,” Prison Legal News, August 2005, p. 3; reprinted from the New York Times series published in February, 2005.

[lxii] Jon Swartz, “Inmates vs. Outsourcing,” USA Today, July 8, 2004.

[lxiii] Fox Butterfield, “With Longer Sentences, Cost of Fighting Crime is Higher,” New York Times, April 30, 2004.

[lxiv] Fox Butterfield, “Study Tracks Boom in Prisons and Notes Impact on Counties,” New York Times, April 30, 2004.

[lxv] “The Guards Own the Gates,” Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2003; John Pomfret, “California’s Crisis in Prison System a Threat to Public,” Washington Post, June 11, 2006.

[lxvi] “Buying Power,” Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights Newsletter (PO Box 1911, Santa Fe, NM 87504) 31, no. 9 (September 2006)—based on information from the Institute of Money in State Politics in Helena, MT; and David M. Reutter, “Prison Privatization Launders Taxpayer Dollars into Political Contributions,” Prison Legal News, August 2007, p. 13.

[lxvii] Sabol, Couture and Harrison, Prisoners in 2006, p.5.

[lxviii] Marvin Mentor, “Pay to Play:  Guard Union Spreads the Wealth,” Prison Legal News, March 2005, p. 5.

[lxix] “Reject it – now,” Sacramento Bee, August 7, 2006; “The Guards,” op. cit.

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