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Wednesday
Aug222007

303.  Devolution

The ABA Committee's daft proposal to institute a regime of secret trials in America - even if only some prosecutions would be made secret, and then only after the fact (see post 300) - shows how far we've evolved from medieval concepts of justice:

"The common view of the medieval justice system as cruel and based around torture and execution is often unfair and inaccurate," said University of Cambridge historian Helen Mary Carrel. Most criminals received gentle sentences merely meant to shame them, Carrel said, with the punishments often carried out in the open so townspeople could bring them charity.

That's from LiveScience.  The whole point of the ABA Committee's suggestion was to reduce the shame factor.

Over at German Joys (German Joys?) law professor (I mean, Herr Doktor Professor) Andrew Hammel reproduces a chart from a subscription-only scholarly journal giving German murder rates from the 1300s to the present. 

The medieval era, in addition to being smelly, was extremely violent and dangerous; in most places, the murder rate was between 20 and 100 per 100,000. Now, in all European societies, it's declined to around 1. Hooray for modernity!

I came across this table while looking for a similar table for England that I saw recently in a review of Gregory Clark's controversial A Farwell to Alms, a kind of Freakonomics-goes-to-history-class.  I couldn't locate the chart on the Web (and I can't remember where I saw it originally) but it gave comparable figures, which is what started me on this post.

From a 1994 International Herald Tribune account of an academic conference, we read:

Eric H. Monkkonen, a professor of American urban history at the University of California at Los Angeles, said: "What we are finding is that violence is not an immutable human problem. There really has been a civilizing process" in which, scholars say, an increase in state power and courtly manners beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries helped curb impulsive, violent behavior.

New data presented at the conference by a Dutch scholar, Pieter Spierenburg, showed that the homicide rate in Amsterdam, for example, dropped from 47 per 100,000 people in the mid-15th century to 1 to 1.5 per 100,000 in the early 19th century.

The late Eric Monkkonen was a true giant, a tireless researcher and skillful writer, full of insights.  (And for those who doubt the data are there  - wouldn't it be more surprising if our ancestors didn't keep records of things like murders and executions?)

Of course, definitions of "murder" vary tremendously from age to age, and country to country (even state to state, in the U.S.), and some places have efficient and honest law enforcement and tidy record-keeping bureaucracies.  Others don't.  And some murders just go undetected, depending on such things as the ease of concealing a body.  (Deserts, such as New Mexico's, are quite useful.  I imagine jungles, like Colombia's, are even better.)  

So comparing statistics, even for such a relatively unambiguous offense as murder, is at best inexact.  Still, looking at  current international rates provides a certain perspective. 

According to this collection of statistics, the latest available figures have Colombia as the most homicidal nation in the world, though you have to assume the "War on Drugs" death toll is included in those numbers (in contrast to the German figures reproduced at German Joys, which filtered out such statistical blips as the Thirty Years War).   However the number was derived, Colombia's homicide rate was calculated at just under 62 per 100,000

Then there's South Africa at around 50, Jamaica and Venezuela at 32, Russia at 20.  It drops pretty precipitously after that, with the US sliding into 24th place at about 4.3 per 100,000.  (The Bureau of Justice Statistics pegs it at a little more than one funeral per 100,000 higher than that.)

Now here's a Los Angeles Times story from last Sunday:

Homicide is not fair, hitting hardest among Latinos and especially among blacks. Latinos are killed at more than three times the rate of whites, while blacks succumb to homicide at three times the rate of Latinos, the Times analysis shows.

Adult males are the eye of the storm. The national homicide rate is about six deaths per 100,000 people each year. But for Latino men in their 20s in Los Angeles County, the rate is 52 deaths, and for black men, 176 deaths.

That's right.  176.  And that's a great deal more than 76% worse than medieval Germany, because in medieval Germany they didn't have medicine, much less modern medicine.  If you were stabbed, it was time to work out whether to address angels with "Sie" or "du."  Today, in the City of Angels itself, our Second City, we tolerate a rate of violent death that would have shamed Henry the Lion.

Imagine if, say, federal judges were murdered at that rate.  According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, there are "about 2,000 judicial officers, including active and senior appellate and district court judges, bankruptcy judges, and magistrate judges" currently reveling in the lavish perks.   If federal judicial officers were murdered at the same rate as young Black men in LA County, we'd have 3.5 additional vacancies on the federal bench every year.

That, needless to say, would be a crisis.

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September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterdenReexemalia

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