And Nobody Mentions The Lead Paint

Frank James at NPR:

There’s been a much-observed tendency to link periods of rising economic distress with increasing crime rates.

But we may have to rethink that, given the pattern in the national data released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2009, for the third straight year and during the Great Recession, crime rates fell.

The FBI reports that its preliminary numbers indicate the national violent crime rate fell 5.5. percent. Meanwhile, the property crime rate fell by 4.9 percent. You would think the lack of jobs would mean more burglaries or strong-arm robberies as some people turned to crime to get money. But that just hasn’t been the case.

Mark Kleiman:

Good news: crime is down again, by a substantial amount (7.5% for homicide). Aside from a blip up in 2006, the decline has now been going on for a decade and a half, and the overall decline is now greater than 50%.

Better news: the incarceration rate has finally stopped growing; this year it will probably decline. Less public hysteria about crime might support more intelligent – more effective and less pointlessly cruel – crime control policies. (Someone ought to write a book about that.

Bad news: The Times hed is “U.S. Crime Rates Fell Despite Economy.” Reporters still can’t get it out of their minds that crime naturally rises and falls with the unemployment rate. It doesn’t. (Update: Peter Yost of AP makes the same mistake: he credits the decline with “bucking a historical trend that links rising crime rates to economic woes.” But that “trend” is entirely imaginary. The Roaring Twenties were a high-crime period; the Great Depression was mostly peaceful. The economically stagnant Eisenhower era had crime rates at historic lows; the Kennedy-Johnson boom in economic growth accompanied an explosion in crime rates. The Great Crime Decline didn’t pause for the recession of 2000-2001. The idea that crime and economic activity move in opposite directions is what Mark Twain called “a vagrant opinion, existing with no visible means of support.”

Adam Serwer at Tapped on Kleiman:

In his book, When Brute Force Fails, Kleiman explains that a number of historical and social factors combined to create the crime boom of the latter part of the 20th century, the biggest factor was demographics.

“People commit most of their crimes between the age of 15 and 30, and so periods of time when there are more people in that age range have more crimes,” Kleiman explains. “In addition, a particularly big birth cohort like the Boomers, and to some extent, the Echo Boomers, tend to have a higher individual per-person crime rate.”

This, Kleiman says, also happens to explain some of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. “That’s why the baby bombers brought us sex, drugs and rock and roll while the 1950s teenagers didn’t. The 1950s teenagers were outnumbered by their elders, the ’60s teenagers outnumbered their elders.”

That’s not to say that public policy is irrelevant. More sensible enforcement strategies and less draconian corrections policies would go a long way toward alleviating the economic and social costs of mass incarceration, and subsequently the predictable cycle of criminal recidivism.

Daniel Griswold at Cato:

FBI crime figures reported in today’s Wall Street Journal challenge the perception that illegal immigrants have unleashed a crime wave in Arizona.

One of the clinching arguments for Arizona’s tough new law aimed at illegal immigration has been the perception in that state that crime has been rising, and that undocumented workers are largely to blame. Yet the Journal reports that the incidence of violent crime in Phoenix last year plunged 16.6 percent compared to 2008, a rate of decline that was three times the national average.

According to the Phoenix Police Department, the downward trend in crime has continued into 2010 even as the “illegal immigrant crime wave” story reverberates on cable TV and talk radio. As the Journal story reports:

In Phoenix, police spokesman Trent Crump said, “Despite all the hype, in every single reportable crime category, we’re significantly down.” Mr. Crump said Phoenix’s most recent data for 2010 indicated still lower crime. For the first quarter of 2010, violent crime was down 17% overall in the city, while homicides were down 38% and robberies 27%, compared with the same period in 2009.

Arizona’s major cities all registered declines. A perceived rise in crime is one reason often cited by proponents of a new law intended to crack down on illegal immigration. The number of kidnappings reported in Phoenix, which hit 368 in 2008, was also down, though police officials didn’t have exact figures.

The new crime figures confirm what I wrote in a column in today’s Washington Times under the headline, “Unfounded fear of immigrant crime grips Arizona,” and what I explored in a longer think piece, “Higher Immigration, Lower Crime,” in Commentary magazine a few months ago.

The president and Congress need to fix our immigration system, but we need to do it in the right way and for the right reasons.

John J. Miller at The Corner:

Several prominent police chiefs warn that Arizona’s illegal-alien law will hurt crime control. The police chief of Prince William County in Virginia worried about the same thing three years ago, when county supervisors approved a policy that is a forerunner to Arizona’s action. Today, however, crime rates are at a 15-year low inPrince William County. My article in the current issue of NR describes the Prince William experience.

As it happens, crime rates have been going down for a long time in Prince William County. The latest numbers are part of a trend that started long before the county took a stand against illegal immigration. One thing is certain: The county’s current policy has not led to more crime, which is what the chiefs of Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia are now predicting for Arizona.

Bob Goldsmith:

But the bigger question is why are crime rates dropping in a recession? You’d think more unemployed people would mean more theft, robbery and other economic crimes plus more frustration, and perhaps more violent crime as well. Yet crime statistics from the 20th century show that the Prohibition era of the 1920’s was far more violent than the Depression in the 30’s. Experts do not have many well accepted theories on what causes crime rates to rise and fall. Some scholars have suggested such theories as: greater numbers of immigrants, who tend to keep a low profile; as opposed to this, others assert more illegal immigration increases crime rates; public housing policy dispersing the poor may decrease rates; legalized abortion (so fewer unwanted children are born) may decrease; the crack epidemic in the 1980’s was thought to increase crime ; and changes in age distribution–e.g., the baby boom in the late 60’s and 70’s and the boomlet in the late 80’s and 90’s effect rates of crime..

The age distribution theory is probably the one most accepted. That is, crime rates tend to flow with the number of young males at a given time; the higher the proportion of young men in the population, the higher the crime rates since young men are by and large the biggest group of offenders. In fact, there is no strong statistical correlation between stricter law enforcement and longer sentences and the rise and fall of crime rates. See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200808/when-crime-rates-go-down-recidivism-rates-go This just serves to show that politicians who emphasize ‘law and order’ as an issue may be just blowing smoke..

One interesting theory on why crimes rates might decline during a recession is it pulls families together, and this cohesion inhibits crime. More young people may move back home and are less influenced by their impulsive peers as well. There is also less economic activity in a recession so there is less interaction and opportunity for crime. Ironically, crime rates went up during the prosperity of the 1960’s and one theory is that with rising wealth, the havenots and the people left out are more bitter and turn to crime. In contrast, when everyone’s boat is sinking with the economic tide, there is more empathy, less jealousy and hence less crime. Of course none of this has been proven..

Finally, there are theories that smarter, better policing may reduce crime rates. For example, declining crime rates in New York City and Los Angeles are often ascribed to increases in the number of police on the streets, better computers for tracking crime, making precinct commanders accountable for managing crime in their districts, and an aggressive policy of searching people on the streets for guns. To be sure, the latter policy may deter crime, but makes it harder to obtain convictions if the Fourth Amendment is violated. Like many other factors, these claims of improved policing are unproven. Another possibility is that the increased use of very long 3 strikes sentences and federal mandatory sentences have cut back on the recdivist population. But that would not necessarily explain the drop from 2008-2009..

Peter Wehner at Commentary:

The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”

Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.

The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.

One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.

We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.

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Filed under Crime, Economics, Immigration, The Crisis

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