Police and sociologists aren't surprised a Gazette analysis shows low-income neighborhoods in Janesville generate more arrests.
Police Chief Dave Moore said there's a connection between poverty and crime, and part of the reason in Janesville is that police focus more attention on those neighborhoods.
But critics of this approach to policing say it doesn't deter crime, and it worsens poverty and other stress on residents.
The Gazette analyzed Janesville police data for 2017, plotting the home addresses of those arrested for felonies.
The data show the city’s near west side, where census data indicates much of the city's poverty is concentrated, is also the home of a high proportion of those arrested.
People arrested that year live all over the city, but areas with lower incomes showed higher percentages of arrestees.
The analysis used census tracts to measure concentrations of people living below 125 percent of the federal poverty line. The area with the highest low-income level also had the highest rate of felony arrests, 18.3 arrests per 1,000 residents.
Race, poverty and crime
The question of poverty was raised recently when Rock County released statistics showing the county’s African-American population is both poorer than the majority white population and much more likely to be arrested.
Moore suggested poverty, education and parenting of those arrested might explain the statistics, rather than racial bias on the part of police. Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson said more study was needed before conclusions could be drawn.
But others said the difference in arrests was so great that racial bias had to be a factor.
The argument is a nationwide one, with some saying police focusing on areas of poverty drives up arrest rates in those areas.
UW-Madison sociologist Pamela Oliver, who works with the Wisconsin Racial Disparities Project, said police she has talked to agree that if you commit a crime, you’re more likely to get caught in a heavily policed area, and that’s why statistics show racial differences in arrests.
Studies have shown for years higher drug use among young white people than their black counterparts, and yet it’s poor black communities that see the high arrest rates, Oliver said.
Janesville police concentrate on the low-income areas of the near west side, Moore said.
Moore said he told residents of the Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods years ago that police would do what they can to keep them safe.
“And with that comes more police officers,” Moore said.
Moore has long touted this strategy as a way to drive crime away and help the city through tough times, starting as the General Motors plant closed and the Great Recession loomed in 2008.
“The police department has a responsibility to bring order and safety to these neighborhoods, and the way we do that is we’re present to address these types of issues, hopefully before they occur,” Moore said, “… So we are present more in neighborhoods where there is crime and disorder.”
Drug investigations target open-air drug sales and drug houses, Moore said, so if drug sales happen in a way that is much less visible, police might not be as involved.
“Those that don’t think it’s fair, give us a call (about drug sales in more affluent areas). We’ll gladly investigate it,” Moore said.
But wait a minute …
A Gallup poll last year showed a majority of Americans think there was more crime than the year before, but national crime rates actually are dropping.
Nationally, crime rates declined steadily from 1991 through 2016, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, including through the Great Recession.
And local numbers suggest poverty is not the only thing affecting crime rates.
Consider that Janesville residents living in poverty rose from 12.6 percent in 2010 to 15.2 percent in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But crime went down.
The Janesville Police Department reported crime rates hovering around 4,100 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and then dropping to 3,253 per 100,000 in 2015.
So what’s going on?
Moore and Oliver agree that poverty can give rise to crime. Moore cautioned, however, that people shouldn’t conclude that a person is a criminal just because he lives in poverty.
One way poverty causes crime is the way most people think of it: Some people in desperate need of money commit crimes, Oliver said.
“Certain kinds of crime are alternative ways to make a living—illegal commerce, stealing stuff,” Oliver said.
Another connection is stress.
“It is very stressful to be poor, and that stress leads to interpersonal violence at times,” Oliver said.
And people suffering stress might turn to legal and illegal mind-altering substances, from alcohol to illicit drugs, Oliver noted.
Behavior arising from those substances can be criminal, and possessing some of them is, Oliver noted.
Moore sees even more connections:
“If you suffer from poverty, you have less access to medical care, mental health care and drug-addiction support,” Moore noted.
All three of those problems can lead to crime: A person in a mental-health crisis might attack a cop, Moore said. And the opioid/heroin epidemic drives many local property crimes as addicts try to keep up with the cost of their habits.
Wealthier people can afford treatment for these problems, but for poor people that can mean losing a job and more stress as people try to provide food and shelter, Moore said.
Having a criminal record can compound the problem, making it harder to get a job.
“It’s not supposed to, but it does,” Moore said.
“Crime is often a response to some kind of trauma, and being poor is a form of trauma,” said Beloit College sociologist Charles Westerberg.
Westerberg noted that some argue poverty causes crime, others that crime causes poverty.
Westerberg thinks poverty and crime are symptoms of deeper problems, and solving these problems requires getting to the root causes.
Moore said people in poverty can’t buy nice cars, so their vehicles are more likely to be pulled over for having a headlight out, for example. Those stops can lead to confrontations with stressed residents or discovery of drugs.
Moore acknowledged police find fewer reasons to stop people with nice cars, even though those cars might have drugs in them, too.
Westerberg said once poor people are arrested, they have fewer resources to pay bail to get out of jail or hire a lawyer, so they may stay in jail, losing their jobs.
Rock County officials are working to make the bail system fairer but are still hammering out the details.
The good news on poverty and crime could be an increase in wages locally.
Erick Williams of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties said youth-employment programs are finding it easier to find jobs for young people, even those with criminal records, and wages have risen above $15 an hour in many places.
That’s an improvement, but the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in 2018 that an hourly wage of $16.52 was needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Wisconsin.
A longtime contention of some researchers is that government can spend more money on subsidizing day care and other services to the poor, or business can pay people higher wages, or government will spend those tax dollars on crime control.
That idea is part of a new National Academy of Sciences report to be released next week, which will recommend reversing the trend of less government help.
“Poverty can be reduced if wages are high enough and jobs are stable enough,” said one of the report’s authors, UW-Madison professor of public affairs and economics Timothy Smeeding, in a university news release. “When wages are not high enough and work is not steady, we need to supplement and stabilize these earned incomes so kids have a decent chance at upward mobility when they grow up."
“We have made some progress against child poverty over the past 20 years following this philosophy. We just need to do more,” Smeeding continued. “We have found that forcing people to work to keep benefits and promoting marriage among low-income parents does not work, as our report clearly shows.”
Nationwide, there’s a move to change the criminal justice system with the acknowledgement that putting more and more people in prison for longer and longer sentences hasn’t worked.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle are eyeing changes to the get-tough sentencing policies enacted in the 1990s.
“That’s unheard of,” Westerberg said. “If they would have said that, even in 2000, that would’ve been unthinkable.”