February 19, 1979 12:00 PM

“For a long time liberals denied that crime was increasing, “says Charles Silberman, 54.” And I suspected they were merely afraid of being called racist.” Silberman, a former editor of FORTUNE and the author of two national best-sellers on education and race (‘Crisis in the Classroom and Crisis in Black and White) spent the last six years—and a $537,000 Ford Foundation grant—studying crime and punishment in America. The result is Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice (Random House, $15), which debunks a number of myths (most criminals do get caught, he discovered) and comes to the provocative conclusion that “to a degree few have been willing to acknowledge openly” crime is basically a problem of race. As part of his research, Silberman rode with police patrols in 10 cities and interviewed about 500 prisoners and 150 policemen. Silberman was raised in New York City, where he now lives with his wife, Arlene, who helped research the study. Their four sons (David, a 28-year-old lawyer, Rick, 25, Jeff, 22, and Steve, 19) offered their own suggestions and criticism. Silberman talked about his findings with Mary Vespa of PEOPLE.

Have you ever been the victim of a street crime?

I had my pocket picked recently coming home on a Manhattan bus after taping a radio program. I lost my wallet and some credit cards. My house was also burglarized while I was working on the book. Neither of these were violent crimes, and yet I felt personally violated. The feelings are probably very similar to what it’s like being raped. It’s an invasion of yourself.

Why do you write that crime is “as American as Jesse James”?

We took the country from the Indians. We were settled in part by criminals, outlaws and dissidents. In a society of immigrants, it’s much harder to maintain firm controls on behavior because new people coming in don’t know the rules. Secondly, we have a strong belief that everyone ought to be equal. Those who are not equal frequently have a desire to pull other people down to their level. Among frontier Americans the Winchester rifle and the Colt revolver were known as the great equalizers. That says a lot about the kind of society we were.

What are some misconceptions about our criminal justice system?

One is that we don’t punish criminals the way we used to, that protecting the rights of defendants has resulted in large numbers of criminals going free. I found that we convict a larger proportion of criminals now than we did in the 1920s. And we send a larger proportion of criminals to prison. When seemingly guilty offenders are set free, the reason almost always is not that the judges were soft but that the prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to secure a conviction. Victims and witnesses often refuse to testify because they know the offender.

Why do we have such misconceptions?

I think the public has been misled by politicians, for one thing. Crime evokes such intense emotions that making it a political issue is very easy. Herbert Hoover ran for the Presidency on a law-and-order platform 51 years ago.

Why has crime been steadily increasing since the early 1960s?

For three reasons. First, there was a worldwide decline in respect for authority and tradition which seems to have speeded up in the 1960s. Second, there was a demographic explosion. Crime is a young man’s pursuit. Most criminals are between the ages of 14 and 24. As a result of the baby boom, during the ’60s the number of 14-to 24-year-olds grew 63 percent—more than in the preceding 70 years combined. Third, there was a racial revolution. Blacks were no longer being kept in their place. The rage was enormous.

Why do you say in your book that crime, more than we want to admit, is a problem of race?

Because blacks are responsible for a very large proportion of the crime that evokes the most fear. When we talk about crime in the street, we’re essentially talking about robbery. It is the most frequent violent crime. Roughly 60 percent of those arrested for robbery are black. Seventy-five percent of the increase in robbery since 1960 was committed by black offenders. In 1976 more than half those arrested for murder, nearly half those arrested for rape and two-fifths of those arrested for aggravated assault were black. But it must be remembered that most victims of such crime, except robbery, are also black.

Is violence something that blacks learned in this country?

Totally. There is less violence in Africa than there is in Western Europe. Blacks are the only group in the United States who did not come voluntarily. It would be hard to imagine an environment better calculated to evoke violence than the one in which black Americans have lived. What is remarkable is not how much, but how little, black violence there has always been.

How did desegregation affect black crime?

Desegregation was essential, but what we discovered—after the fact—was that segregated communities had created networks of social control. Blacks who were wealthy, middle-class, working-class and poor all lived together. This meant there were role models for success and a stabilizing force exerted by middle-class and professional blacks. Schools which were totally segregated gave black youngsters more of a sense of self than children get in our school system today—even if the schools are still all black.

What is the solution to black crime?

In the long run, black crime will drop as more and more blacks move into the middle class—just as it did for the Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Polish and Greek immigrants. But at the rate things are going it will take two generations for blacks to reach parity with whites. We can’t afford to wait.

Have you gotten any reactions from blacks about your book?

I have run into surprisingly little hostility. However, once on a television show former New York State Corrections Commissioner Ben Ward expressed concern that what I had to say would be fodder for racism.

Do most criminals who are prosecuted—black and white—receive just punishment for their crimes?

Yes. Most adult criminals, but not juveniles.

What is wrong with the juvenile justice system?

It punishes the wrong people. Judges are so hung up on helping kids who they think may become criminal in the future that they spend a vastly disproportionate amount of time on runaways, truants and kids who are ungovernable. The result is that very harsh punishment is often meted out to these so-called status offenders: juveniles who would not be considered criminal if they were adults. These kids do no real harm to anyone but themselves and perhaps their parents’ psyches. Judges don’t have any time left over to focus on young people who commit serious crimes.

Should the punishment of juveniles be less harsh than for adults?

Yes. Kids have a different time sense than adults. A year in the life of a child feels far, far longer than a year in the life of an adult. Also, kids are more malleable than adults. They do change; more than half the kids who are arrested for juvenile delinquency become law-abiding adults.

Why do many young offenders reform?

The most compelling reason for going straight is that young men marry and have children. Marriage and the family are the most effective correctional institutions we have.

Do you think plea bargaining is a useful means of settling criminal offenses?

Yes. It’s been the dominant means of settling criminal cases for centuries. Even lawyers seem to think it’s a recent phenomenon, the result of overcrowded urban courts. It’s not. There is as much plea bargaining in rural courts as in urban courts. Essentially it is the way in which the courts adjust the punishment to fit each particular case.

What is the real purpose of our prison system: to punish or rehabilitate?

Oh, I think it is to punish. Rehabilitation is something we try to do after we have made the decision that people ought to be punished. We are somewhat more successful at punishing than rehabilitating.

What is wrong with this system?

The main thing is that prisons are terribly dangerous places for both prisoners and guards. In fact, a growing number of federal judges have found that prison systems violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. If you are in fear of your life all the time there cannot be very much rehabilitation. Prisoners need to be protected against their keepers and their fellow inmates. There has to be a new approach to prison management which develops an inmate culture that penalizes violence.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I see nothing to suggest a dramatic reduction in crime soon. With the taxpayer revolt we are likely to spend less money on the criminal justice system. I am not optimistic—just hopeful.

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