Two men stand before a judge for sentencing. Because of limited prison space, probably one will be sent to prison and the other will be placed on probation.
One man is a 30-year-old drug addict who has committed dozens of robberies through his adult life. The other is a 22-year-old drug dealer with several arrests for peddling drugs at a junior high school and who occasionally uses drugs himself.
Who should be jailed?
Criminologists may claim that conventional wisdom points to the second man because to most judges, drug dealing is more heinous than robbery and the robber's drug habit makes him less responsible for his crimes.
Also, because judges see fewer 30-year-olds than 22-year-olds, they may assume that older criminals are about to abandon their activities and younger offenders more likely to commit crimes for several more years.
But according to criminologist Alfred Blumstein, society is best served if the drug-addicted robber is jailed. Although the drug dealer's crime is abhorrent, Blumstein said, jailing him will not likely stop drug trafficking.
"I feel as angry about the drug dealer as the next person," said Blumstein, head of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie-Mellon University and a member of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission. "But for the penny-ante drug dealer, we know there is enough profit in it that very severe sentences will not deter others from engaging in it. If you lock him up, someone else will just fill in for him.
"I would rather use the limited prison space for the person who's inflicting crime on the rest of us by robbing and burglarizing, particularly if they're heavy drug users, because that's an indication they're going to continue to do so."
Blumstein's research has shown that career criminals are usually men with a long history of offenses who commit crimes often and are drug abusers. Those people, he argues, are most likely to continue in crime and are least likely to stop if left on the street.
Drug Abusers' Crimes
Heavy drug abusers commit crimes "as much as 10 times more frequently than if they were not actively using drugs," he said.
In addition, most offenders give up their criminal activities in their 20s, while career criminals often don't drop out of crime until their early 40s, Blumstein said.
"What's going on is the weak of heart are dropping out and you're left with the hard core by 30," he said. "So those who are still active at 30, having started at a young age, are very likely going to continue."
Blumstein said his research over the last decade was based on the analyses of the arrest records of more than 140,000 people in New York state, 40,000 in Michigan and 5,000 in Washington, D.C.
Blumstein acknowledges that there is nothing surprising about the three factors by which career criminals can be identified: They are drug dependent, have extensive criminal histories and commit crimes often.
But he said that it is perhaps surprising that there aren't more distinctions.
Comparison of Criminals
In the past, researchers compared criminals to the rest of the population when trying to ascertain their common traits, Blumstein said. As a result, criminals have been characterized as predominantly black, poor, young and male.
To determine the attributes that distinguish career criminals from other offenders, however, Blumstein studied only criminals--those who commit crimes occasionally compared to those who commit them often, those who commit serious crimes opposed to those who commit petty crimes, older criminals and younger criminals, black criminals and white criminals.
Blumstein discovered that variables such as race, socioeconomic status and age are insignificant in projecting who is more likely to turn into a hardened, career criminal and who will eventually stop committing crimes or commit only petty crimes.
Those factors may determine who is more likely to commit a crime, but not necessarily who will become a career criminal, Blumstein said.
The chance of blacks or poor people becoming career criminals is no greater than whites or rich people turning into career criminals, he said.
Those distinctions, however subtle, are critical, Blumstein said.
"These days . . . every state's prisons are overcrowded. So we would like to find the people who are the most serious candidates for prison and make sure they are the ones who go there," he said.
"This is just so important a field that we ought to know something about it. We spend billions of dollars on it every year and we moan about it enormously, and we know so little about who they are and what distinguishes them and how much they do."
In part, that's because criminology is "dominated by ideological considerations," Blumstein said.
"The (political) right wants to punish these monsters and the left wants to recognize that there's crime all around us and stop being so punitive and improve the social conditions that gave rise to the crime," he said.
"What we're trying to do is shed some light on all of this and . . . become better informed of who are the career criminals, how do they differ from the non-career criminals, what good do we get from imprisonment and what do we fail to get that we think we're getting."
Allen Andrews Jr., chief of police in Peoria, Ill., said Blumstein's three criteria should be taken into consideration by sentencing judges.
"Sentencing is so subjective now, no one knows what counts for what in a given decision. I firmly believe that, properly done, the use of this approach would be as accurate and better than the decisions now being made by instinct by all of us in the business," said Andrews, who, with Blumstein, is a member of a national panel researching career criminals.
Reggie B. Walton, associate judge of the Superior Court for the District of Columbia and also a member of the panel, said the research "tends to dispel certain beliefs people had" but also generates ethical problems.