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What Is a Crime? Who Is a Criminal?

Societies the world over continually grapple with what counts as a crime — and who counts as a criminal. In the post-Civil War South, African Americans without jobs could be arrested for the “crime” of vagrancy and made to work on mines or roads. Well into the 20th century, homosexual relationships were criminal but domestic violence was not. Starting in 1986, “War on Drugs” laws imposed penalties for crack cocaine 100 times harsher than for powder cocaine; almost 80% of sentenced crack offenders were black. In 2010, this disparity was reduced to 18:1.

Responses to crime also change. In recent decades, the U.S. has prescribed more prison than ever before in our history. While crime rates dropped since 1993, incarceration rates increased: people now receive longer sentences for the same crimes, and more crimes are punished with imprisonment. But NY, NJ and CA have reduced their prison populations by about 25% since 1999.  

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