Further crime drop in 2009: FBI

The crime decline has now been going on for a decade and a half.

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 lede 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.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on “Further crime drop in 2009: FBI”

  1. I'd be interested to read more on that last point — I always thought that crime *did* rise and fall with the economy.

  2. Great, and under-reported news.

    I wonder if LoJack and the general computerization of cars play a role in the 17% decrease in car thefts (computerized parts require sophisticated mechanics who are maybe less attracted to the black market).

    Some international comparisons for developed countries would be interesting.

  3. But what about the age distribution in the population. I was under the impression that when the 16-25 year old cohort was large, crime rates rose

  4. If I hadn't read your book, Mark, I'd probably be thinking the same thing as the reporters. The idea that reducing unemployment reduces crime (since presumably more people working means less incentive for crime) is wrong, but very intuitive and entrenched.

  5. Spandrel and Paul Gottlieb, both of your points have been addressed in a book edited by Al Blumstein and Joel Wallman entitled "The Crime Drop in America". Historical examples of crime appearing to rise or fall with the economy were generally examples of confounding factors giving the appearance of a relationship between the two (such as the expansion of open-air crack markets in the 1980s). The relationship between the economy and crime is a complex and historically situated one that cannot be untangled easily. Mark is correct that generally the best evidence suggests little direct correlation between unemployment rates and crime. So much for strain/anomie theories of crime (a la Cloward & Ohlin, who not surprisingly had a lot to do with the liberal "Great Society" and "war on poverty").

    Yes, the age distribution of the population does have a small impact on the crime rate but it is only one of many important factors influencing crime rates. In fact, criminologists, such as James Alan Fox, who have made forecasts of future crime rates based primarily on demographic projections have often been embarrassed in their predictions.

    Mark points out the good news, that incarceration rates appear to be now leveling off. I would whole-heartedly agree that this is a positive trend. To be fair, however, let's don't forget that a steep rise in the incarceration rate did have more than just a minor impact on the decade and a half crime drop that Mark refers to. We are most certainly well beyond the point of diminishing returns though when it comes to prison. Mark's book and several others provide a good historical accounting of the prisons-crime relationship.

    One of my favorite articles on the explanations for this decade and a half crime drop is Steve Levitt's "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors That Explain The Decline and Six That Do Not". You'll have to read the article for Levitt's list and supporting evidence. I think Mark might add lead paint regulations to the list of explanations, which is probably just slightly more plausible than Levitt's abortion-crime link. Bottom line though…no one single factor can explain this long crime drop. What is interesting is that the pattern has shifted somewhat from the beginning of the drop in the mid 1990s, in that it started out more or less as a monotonous drop across all major cities but now the drop is masking a fairly wide degree of variation between cities with some cities continuing to drop and other cities now rising.

  6. You cannot lump all crimes together and treat the aggregate "crime" as a single phenomenon that can be analyzed as being the result of some particular cause and effect. Violent crimes generally have far different motivations from white collar crimes and regulatory crimes (criminal violation of environmental or occupational safety laws, e.g.). Different motivations mean the causal factors are likely to be different also. One would expect that certain financial crimes would rise in times of great prosperity because the reward vs risk ratio would be very high or in very bad economic times due to desperation, while there would appear to be less reason for violent crime to be connected to general economic woes or rewards.

  7. I'm not sure what you're getting at in your 2nd paragraph. It follows that if there's less crime, there are fewer people going to jail. Perhaps it indicates that when incarceration rates are high, more people begin to turn from crime. Maybe the high possibility of doing time is, in fact, effective at bringing down the crime rate.

  8. Roc:

    I wish it followed that fewer crimes meant less incarceration. But since 1994 we have continued to build more and more prisons as crime rates plummeted.

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