Crime declines, again.

Crime was down again last year, about 5% overall. Reporters and some criminologists continue to insist that there’s a puzzle here, because crime ought to go up with unemployment. How that idea fits with the high-crime Roaring Twenties and the low-crime Depression era, or the very peaceful low-growth 1950s and the crime explosion that accompanied the Kennedy-Johnson economic boom no one seems to be able to explain.

Crime is linked to long-term concentrated poverty and deprivation; there’s no evidence that it’s linked to unemployment rates.

Larry Mantle of KPCC’s Air Talk kept insisting that increased incarceration must be a big part of the reason for the crime drop last year, despite the fact that incarceration did not increase last year. When a causal factor generates an effect despite not being present, you know that its causal force must be very strong indeed.

One explanation that appeals to me is that there’s a strong positive feedback built in to crime rates; the fewer crimes, the more cops and the more cells per crime, so crime declines and crime increases both tend to feed on themselves.

But an Air Talk caller offered an explanation that hadn’t occurred to me: Grand Theft Auto. Instead of getting their adrenaline rush from stealing real cars, he said, kids are getting the same rush from stealing virtual cars.

Give that man a grant.

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:

14 thoughts on “Crime declines, again.”

  1. I'm not sure the rush is quite the same in a video game as in real life. But I think it's an interesting question generally: to what extent might virtual violence, illicit behavior, etc. provide a safe outlet for would-be criminals, i.e. those demographics with high rates of criminality. That would be an interesting study.

  2. Huh. I'd always thought that the "paradoxical" behavior was, if not well understood, at least well known to be the case.

    Has anyone made the argument that crime is driven (in many different ways) by the presence of lots of disposable income sloshing around the economy. For a back-of-the-envelope argument, it would make sense that both the expected profits from property crimes and some of the behaviors associated with interpersonal crimes would tend to decrease when people have to spend all their money on the (mostly lawful) basics.

  3. Give that man a grant.

    Well, given that his theory, unlike Mantle's, was possible, maybe instead of a grant we should threaten to give him Mantle's job, in the hope of making Mantle and his peers take their jobs a bit more seriously?

  4. What happens if there is less "easy money" for making trouble in USA, especially compared to staying in or going to Mexico relative to the mathematics of that calculation in past years (all bets off if self-destruction of Mexican society continues to greater extent)?

    What happens if a Change means that a black man's understanding of himself as a rebel becomes more complicated?

    Don't know about statistics (which have many different ways of interpretation anyway). Am only posting obscure hypotheticals.

  5. Never mind. There are many factors. And my suggestions are only intended to be thought about as supplements, not as substitutions.

  6. I thought about this. For instance, there was a big video game release on Tuesday, and various stores had midnight releases. The demographic of the people attending this event was pretty much the demographic we worry about becoming involved in organized crime. If there was a federal grant, channeled through community non-profits (after school centers, violence prevention, Teen centers, etc) that gave away free online subscriptions to Xbox Live or World of Warcraft, I think you'll see a drop in crime at the reporting district level. If indeed it proved to work, I can't even imagine the C-B ratio when you compare a $50 annual subscription (or $300 in hardware and software) versus incarceration, property damage, and bodily injury.

  7. "Larry Mantle of KPCC’s Air Talk kept insisting that increased incarceration must be a big part of the reason for the crime drop last year, despite the fact that incarceration did not increase last year."

    Seems to me that a drop in the crime rate would lag a bit with respect to incarceration rate, rather than be coincident with it.

    Not that I necessarily believe that incarceration rates play a dominant role in crime rates, but I don't think comparing the two from the same year really says much about whether the claim is true or not.

  8. I'm too lazy to look this up, but I'm pretty sure that there was, in fact, at least one study testing more or less exactly the '"Grand Theft Auto" instead of Grand Theft Auto' hypothesis–it looked at crime during weekends when big violent movies opened, and seemed to find a genuine effect. Though it's not clear if the mechanism is mostly satiation or simple quasi-incapacitation (harder to multitask most sorts of crime & watching a movie).

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