The culture that was Chicago

by on October 1, 2011 at 9:35 am in Books, History, Law | Permalink

More than three-quarters of turn-of-the-century Chicago homicides led to no criminal punishment — not because the perpetrator could not be identified, but because no jury would convict.  One historian’s study of Chicago homicide cases in that period reads like a compendium of bar fights that got out of hand, nearly all of which took place in front of witnesses and most of which ended in defense victories.  A system in which easily identified perpetrators succeed so readily is bound to have a small prison population.

That is from the new and excellent book The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, by William J. Stuntz, recommended to me by the excellent Chug Roberts.

david October 1, 2011 at 9:42 am

Sneaking suspicion that a large number of said homicides were of high-status groups picking on individuals from low-status groups – hence the absence of a jury willing to convict…

Or, as another alternative – organized crime that is organized enough to terrorize juries.

mrmandias October 1, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Probably has more to do with ethnicity than with status. My sneaking suspicion is that most of the ‘refuse to convict’ cases were intra-ethnic quarrels that coethnic witnesses or jurors thought would best be dealt with ‘internally’ without the clumsy involvement of the law.

Eric October 1, 2011 at 10:06 am

Which turn of the century are they talking about here? I could see this as applying to either of the last two.

8 October 1, 2011 at 10:42 am

Sounds like the case that led to the LA Riots (Clippers should change their name to that). Prosecutor pursues a much stronger case than the evidence provides and the jury refuses to convict.

Was it WASP prosecutors and Irish/Polish brawlers? What was the ethnic makeup of the jury?

RZ0 October 1, 2011 at 11:00 am

Some inherent racism involved, too. Quite simply cops didn’t bother with black-on-black crime.

RZ0 October 1, 2011 at 11:01 am

JTA that Chicago wasn’t the only town like this. Uninvestigated murders were common throughout the US

zrzzz October 1, 2011 at 11:15 am

Protracted vengeance is expensive. Maybe they assessed the liklihood of re-offending and realized it was uneconomical to keep someone locked up who posed minimal further threat. Don’t try to claim the US has a good system today. They have the world’s highest incarceration rate and yet the crime rate is higher than most other developed nations. Clearly, the lock-them-all-up approach is not working.

Think of it this way: less money tied up in prisons means more money in the private sector creating jobs and minimizing the poverty and idleness that leads to crime.

Rob October 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm

I’m involved in a somewhat raucous online debate about the optimal number of police officers, today. Googling and basic research shows that 1.) violent crime is way down since 1991, like most of the U.S. (http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=violent+crime+rates+chicago+history) and 2.) Chicago has 3,500 more police officers than Los Angeles, in spite of having a million fewer people.

I’m not convinced #2 –> #1, though there might be some causation there. I’ve wondered if maybe we’ve locked up enough criminals / minorities to reach a tipping point, or if it’s all about police strategies.

tkehler October 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Ah, so poverty and idleness leads to crime, does it?

I’d like to see evidence for this, or even an argument, because — and this is anecdotal, I suppose, but not invalid for all that — every single criminal I’ve known (from litterers, to dangerous drivers and drunk drivers, to tax scoff-laws and polluters, and petty thieves) has been selfish, lazy, involved with drugs and/or alcohol, but NOT poor. Many of their actions scream a big “fuck you” to civilized and decent norms, let alone laws, but don’t kid yourself: they aren’t stealing, say, because of hunger or cold.

Cliff October 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Quite a list you have there- polluters? Litterers? “Dangerous” drivers? I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about.

tkehler October 1, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I see your point, but…

i) As I said, they are the ones I know, or have known, or have had dealings with. And ii) they are criminals, though perhaps not “infamous” criminals. It’s (thankfully) rare for most of us to have any dealings with murderers, say.

An example: I’m a serious cyclist. The other day a driver tried to run me off the road (!), even though I was in a bike lane and obeying the traffic laws. Neither poverty (assuming his brand new pickup was his own) nor idleness (I suppose…) determined that he would try to do this. I would wager that a lot of crime is committed by people who are irritated or enraged about something, and momentarily take risks, discounting the future.

Zephyrus October 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Matt Yglesias had an interesting point about this a couple weeks back. There was a news story where some guy had been violently mugged, and when interviewed about it he just talked about he wished society would try to address the racial inequalities and deprivation that had caused the young ruffians to beat the shit out of him and send him to the hospital. Yglesias made the obvious point that, when walking down the street, the vast majority of poor minorities do not, in fact, attack you and beat you up.

Pretending that poverty is the cause of crime, besides letting the crooks off too easily, really doesn’t do justice to the vast majority of poor people.

Señor Peligro October 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm

These are the kinds of fools the Darwin Awards were no doubt inspired by.

TGGP October 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm

You are thinking of this post.

Jim October 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm

>Think of it this way: less money tied up in prisons means more money in the private sector

Ha!!

Yeah, I’m sure if Obama were to slash the Federal Prison budget, he’d immediately give the savings to the private sector. We are all acutely aware of how much he loves the private sector.

ron October 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I think violent crime is declining largely due to the aging of the population and has little to due with enforcement or the economy. I would be interested in seeing crime rates by age cohort to see if this intuition is true.

William Sjostrom October 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm

MIke Royko once wrote that during the ’20s, when Chicago was dominated by the Capone and Moran gangs, the city government worked hard to deny it. On one occasion, the coroner showed up at a scene where a mobster lay dead in the streets, riddled with bullets. The coroner searched the dead guy’s pockets, found a bottle of aspirin, and declared the man had died of a severe headache.

Norman Pfyster October 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Was he shot in the head?

Jameson Burt October 2, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Stop wasteful government funding to prosecute murderers.
In the Philippines, as in many former Spanish colonies,
government doesn’t prosecute for murders.
However, a citizen can bring suit for a murder,
but such suits rarely happen for obvious reasons.

Thus, a woman in Fairfax had a brother in Philippines,
teaching in an elementary school
A man in leather rode up on a motorcycle and asked where the teacher could be found.
The motorcycler walked to the teachers room, shot him twice, then returned to his motorcycle.
Uncertain if he’d killed the teacher, the motorcycler returned to shoot the teacher again.
The Philippine government wouldn’t prosecute this, and the teacher’s family feared starting their own court case.

Lyn October 4, 2011 at 7:27 am

The system we have now is not a success. I wasn’t around in 1900 and have never even been to Chicago. Can’t help but think those were better times though because the people back then relied on themselves more and on the police & courts less. That’s a good thing. When my library gets a copy of the mentioned book I will check it out. Would be interesting to know how many confessions were beaten out of people, if plea deals were common, etc. Also wonder about the mentality of people back in 1900. To me not all homicides are a bad thing. Sometimes the way people act there’s no choice but to kill them or be killed or raped or robbed.

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