The Myth of Nonviolent Crime

CREDIT: X/Henry K. Lee

It's a common discussion among folks on both Right and Left (and perhaps especially among libertarians) to talk about violent crime vs. nonviolent crime, and how repercussions of the two from the justice system should differ. But City Journal's Rafael A. Mangual maintains that the difference between the two is not as great as it would seem.

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Two ubiquitous phrases in debates about policing and criminal-justice policy are “nonviolent crime” and “nonviolent offender.” Are these categorizations really useful? The best test of whether an offense or offender is truly nonviolent is to intervene and try to put a stop to a so-called low-level offense and see what reaction you get. It’s not hard to see how getting involved in many such scenarios could prove dangerous. Tragically, a recent case in San Francisco illustrates these dangers vividly.

Five days after sustaining serious injuries, a San Francisco store clerk named Yowhannes “John” Tewelde has died. He was beaten with a baseball bat by a man whom he tried to stop from stealing beer from his store. Tewelde’s death marks yet another homicide in the Bay Area, which, between San Francisco and Oakland, has seen an enormous amount of crime and mayhem in recent years. 

Many years ago, one of my old friends was dating a girl whose father was a state policeman. He was a great fellow; we liked hanging around at his house because he always had some great stories to tell, and didn't mind opening the fridge and handing out a few beers to his daughter's friends, as long as none of us over-indulged. He had been in on the capture of one of the few really notorious criminals of eastern Iowa in the Seventies, that being the double cop-killer "T-Bone" Taylor.

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One thing he told us has stuck in my mind over the decades since, and that was his statement that every criminal he ever met combined three character traits. He would tell us that the proportions varied, but these three traits were universally present in bad guys: Greedy, Mean, and Stupid.

These days, one has to wonder how much of that applies as well to some of our big city prosecutors.

The nature of Tewelde’s death illustrates an important reality that progressives working to ease up on supposedly nonviolent crimes don’t seem to appreciate: even “minor” offenses like retail theft, open-air drug use, and smoking on subway platforms are frequently backed by a threat of violence. Had Tewelde not intervened, allowing the thief to take what he wished, progressive prosecutors like former San Francisco district attorneys George Gascón and Chesa Boudin probably would have refused to prosecute him, citing the nonviolent nature of the offense. All we’d have is a lowly shop owner forced to shoulder the cost of a few cheap beers. No big deal, right?

Wrong. The decision to ignore the theft would allow an individual who was in truth both willing and able to kill over $10 to remain on the street. It would be only a matter of time before he did something terrible.

Remember those three characteristics: Greedy, Mean, and Stupid. All three are present in these criminals, but boy, it sure seems like the Mean side is taking up a dominant role. That's the side that does the damage; Greedy and Stupid lead those people to commit crimes, but Mean makes them too willing to hurt people.

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Granted there are, actually, non-violent crimes. Kiting bad checks, for example; counterfeiting, various kinds of embezzlement, or corporate fraud. Note that I do not say these are victimless crimes; just that there are in fact certain kinds of crimes where the perpetrators are not willing to engage in violence if things go wrong.

But too many of these street punks and retail robbers are willing to engage in violence, sometimes over a paltry amount of money or merchandise, and that is the major problem with our big cities today; thugs willing to use force and prosecutors and legislators applying the label "non-violent" far too lightly. They have essentially ceased prosecutions of many of these "non-violent" *but not really) crimes, along with passing laws that reduce the penalties for the same to, essentially, a ticket. And the fact that these prosecutors and legislators are almost universally Democrats makes one wonder why they are apparently turning this blind eye towards crime; is it somehow useful to them to have criminals running rampant?

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I would hate to suspect that, from anyone. It's baffling, however, that these policies in our major cities continue. Punks will continue to prey on the law-abiding, and until the leadership in the justice departments in those cities changes, things will only get worse.

In the meantime, maybe we'll start to see some decisions on policy that might actually help.

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