Americans, generally speaking, tend to go in for easy explanations of why crime rates rise and fall. Chief among them is the Poverty Theory of Crime. This explanation popped up again at a dinner party the other night. We were discussing the large number of burglaries in my neighborhood when someone commented that crime was up because the economy was down.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
I don’t particularly relish setting the record straight, especially on contentious issues. Here in the Midwest acting the role of know-it-all is considered bad form. But I couldn’t let the comment pass without pointing out that the U.S. crime rate has been going down for years.
This caused more than a few raised eyebrows.
And why shouldn’t it? The conventional wisdom says crime, especially property crime, should soar during tough economic times. But last year property crime decreased 2.8 percent. In 2009, at the peak of the recession, property crime decreased 4.6 percent. Even when the economy was in ruins during the Great Depression crime remained relatively low. On the other hand, in the boom times of the 1960s, crime skyrocketed. Like a good deal of human behavior, the pattern seems counter-intuitive, if not a complete enigma.
If Einstein had his dream of a unified theory of the universe, criminologists also have their impossible dream: a unified theory that explains crime. Thus far, it has proved equally as elusive.
Conservative criminologists have long embraced the theory that crime is a purely economic decision. Before crime began to fall in 1992, a criminal’s odds of being apprehended were perhaps ten to one. Even if he were arrested, he was unlikely to be prosecuted or, still less likely, convicted. And if he were to serve jail time, he would be at large soon enough, only this time enjoying an extra dose of “street cred.” A life of crime was for many well worth the risk and investment. Crime paid.
Yet, to buy into this theory, we must accept that criminals are rational beings who judge the costs-benefits ratio carefully, instead of irrational, impulsive actors incapable of forethought or weighing long-term consequences. Some are, some are not.
Or one might turn to demographic and social factors. Crime often goes up with the number of young men in a population. The high-crime Sixties and Seventies occurred during a baby boom. As these young men “aged out” in the Eighties, homicide rates fell for the first time in decades. One likely way to lower crime rates would be to stop having children. Male children, in particular.
Morality could also play a role. Beginning in the mid-Sixties, politicians, community leaders, and intellectuals began to blame society for crime, rather than criminals. Would-be outlaws not only believed they could get away with their misdeeds, but believed they had God on their side, since society had dealt them a raw hand. Today, only politicians, community leaders, and intellectuals still believe this.
AS FOR FALLING CRIME RATES, liberals like to attribute the decline to better community policing and more social programs. These factors cannot be completely ruled out. Cops have to some degree succeeded in brokering truces between homicidal drug gangs. Meanwhile the extension of unemployment benefits may have prevented some crime (domestic abuse, for instance) in the short-term. But increases in government handouts have, for much of the past fifty years, mirrored steep rises in crime.
Ohio State University professor Douglas Berman attributes the decrease in crime to an increase in technology. And he doesn’t mean DNA testing, surveillance cameras, and crime mapping systems. Berman says people today spend less time outside where they might fall victim to violent crime, and more time inside at their computers, big-screen TVs, and video games. This may explain why, in my inner-city neighborhood at least, most crimes seem to be property related (smash and grabs from cars and stolen copper pipes from empty homes), instead of violent crimes.
There are, however, a few policies for lowering crime whose effectiveness are beyond debate. The high incarceration rates we’ve seen throughout the past two decades have undeniably reduced crime. Simply put, criminals cannot be breaking the law if they are locked up. Meanwhile New York City has shown that more cops and better policing can be a lot more effective than a strong economy at reducing crime.
The fact that some 2,300,000 Americans are presently incarcerated is both a tragedy and a blessing. A George Orwell is hardly necessary to imagine the dramatic consequences if that population were suddenly turned loose on our cities. Community policing and remaining indoors may or may not be effective at curbing crime, but there is no denying that, to quote former British Conservative Party Leader Michael Howard, “prison works.” That’s not a theory. That’s a fact.