I've been surprised by the extent to which crime has remained subdued. In Financial Armageddon, I argued that deteriorating economic circumstances and aggressive cutbacks by state and local governments would not only encourage criminals to engage in more bad behavior, but would also lead to an increase in illegal activity among formerly law-abiding but now desperate citizens. So far, at least, that has not been the case. A report in Time magazine, "What's Behind America's Falling Crime Rate," offers a number of reasons why:
Health care, climate change, terrorism--is it even possible to solve big problems? The mood in Washington is not very hopeful these days. But take a look at what has happened to one of the biggest, toughest problems facing the country 20 years ago: violent crime. For years, Americans ranked crime at or near the top of their list of urgent issues. Every politician, from alderman to President, was expected to have a crime-fighting agenda, yet many experts despaired of solutions. By 1991, the murder rate in the U.S. reached a near record 9.8 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, criminologists began to theorize that a looming generation of so-called superpredators would soon make things even worse.
Then, a breakthrough. Crime rates started falling. Apart from a few bumps and plateaus, they continued to drop through boom times and recessions, through peace and war, under Democrats and Republicans. Last year's murder rate may be the lowest since the mid-1960s, according to preliminary statistics released by the Department of Justice. The human dimension of this turnaround is extraordinary: had the rate remained unchanged, an additional 170,000 Americans would have been murdered in the years since 1992. That's more U.S. lives than were lost in combat in World War I, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq--combined. In a single year, 2008, lower crime rates meant 40,000 fewer rapes, 380,000 fewer robberies, half a million fewer aggravated assaults and 1.6 million fewer burglaries than we would have seen if rates had remained at peak levels.
There's a catch, though. No one can convincingly explain exactly how the crime problem was solved. Police chiefs around the country credit improved police work. Demographers cite changing demographics of an aging population. Some theorists point to the evolution of the drug trade at both the wholesale and retail levels, while for veterans of the Clinton Administration, the preferred explanation is their initiative to hire more cops. Renegade economist Steven Levitt has speculated that legalized abortion caused the drop in crime. (Fewer unwanted babies in the 1970s and '80s grew up to be thugs in the 1990s and beyond.)
The truth probably lies in a mix of these factors, plus one more: the steep rise in the number of Americans in prison. As local, state and federal governments face an era of diminished resources, they will need a better understanding of how and why crime rates tumbled. A sour economy need not mean a return to lawless streets, but continued success in fighting crime will require more brains, especially in those neighborhoods where violence is still rampant and public safety is a tattered dream.
The Lockup Factor
In his book why crime rates fell, Tufts University sociologist John Conklin concluded that up to half of the improvement was due to a single factor: more people in prison. The U.S. prison population grew by more than half a million during the 1990s and continued to grow, although more slowly, in the next decade. Go back half a century: as sentencing became more lenient in the 1960s and '70s, the crime rate started to rise. When lawmakers responded to the crime wave by building prisons and mandating tough sentences, the number of prisoners increased and the number of crimes fell.
Common sense, you might think. But this is not a popular conclusion among criminologists, according to Conklin. "There is a tendency, perhaps for ideological reasons, not to want to see the connection," he says. Incarceration is to crime what amputation is to gangrene--it can work, but a humane physician would rather find a way to prevent wounds and cure infections before the saw is necessary. Prison is expensive, demoralizing and deadening. "Increased sentencing in some communities has removed entire generations of young men" from some minority communities, says San Francisco police chief George Gascón. "Has that been a factor in lowering crime? I think it probably has. I think it also probably has had a detrimental effect on those communities."
Worth bearing in mind, of course, is that the kinds of financial pressures that individuals and municipalities are continually faced with will eventually undermine some of the factors that have helped keep a lid on illegal activity. Increasingly, governments around the country are slashing police and prison-related budgets, while a growing number of unemployed Americans are exhausting resources and safety-net benefits as jobs remain scarce. Under the circumstances, it won't be long before the crime rate starts moving in the wrong direction.