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Why are violent crime rates falling? We Want Your Opinion

Gentlereaders: This is the title of an editorial in the Washington Post on Saturday, January 2, 2010. And as you can see from the national statistic on the bottom half of this article, crime is indeed down and down considerably.
There are two thoughts that come to our minds when discussing the decline if crime. The first is that the figures are meaningless to those whose lives continued to be impacted by the harsh realities of crime.
The second are the reasons for the reductions.
The first thing to come to grips with is that we do not “know” why crime is declining. That’s quite startling to a lot of people not daily engaged in the criminal justice system but it’s true.
Lots of people will tell you that “they” know, but they don’t, thus the thrust of the Washington Post editorial when they say:
“If only we knew exactly why and how it has occurred. An accident of demography? The passing of the crack cocaine epidemic? We’re inclined to credit policies that put more brave and dedicated cops on the street, with better technology and smarter tactics. Still New York City continued to rack up lower homicide rates in the past decade even as its police force shrank by 6,000. New York officials say that city’s tougher gun laws have helped; yet Houston also recorded a drop in homicide in the first half of 2009 despite loose gun laws.”
“Tougher sentencing probably took some career criminals off the streets — though there’s little evidence that the death penalty deters murder. No doubt new lifesaving medical techniques turned potential homicides into lesser offenses — yet aggravated assault is down, too.”
“Government at all levels spends much time and money figuring out what’s going wrong in our society and how to fix it. Perhaps we need a bigger effort to determine what’s been going right in the fight against violent crime — and to spread that knowledge to every jurisdiction in the country.”
See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/01/01/AR2010010101829_pf.html for the entire editorial.
While we do not “know” the reasons for the drop in crime, we offer some issues to consider:
• Police strategies that target high crime areas and target high-risk repeat offenders seem to have an impact (but it’s interesting that we knew this 25 years ago).
• Data is generally positive regarding programs for offenders in prison and efforts to assist offenders when they are released.
• A variety of programs that make judges centerpieces of efforts (drug courts-probation and parole violation courts) are recording positive results.
• Incarceration (putting people in prison) is often cited as lowering crime rates, but the total impact is a matter of debate.
Now having our say is one thing, but “proving” that the above “caused” drops in crime is another. The research is not uniformly positive and precision is lacking (this is not medical research). So that brings us to additional considerations:
• A poor economy does not increase crime rates. A good economy may be a contributing factor to increased crime.
• Some suggest that the explosion of cell phones is directly connected to declining rates of crime. Like the impact on auto theft due to auto makers building security into newer vehicles, technology and cell phones bring the police into instant contact with us when we feel threatened.
• Others suggest that increasing rates of abortion are having an impact on unwanted children; thus fewer neglected children who can turn to criminal activity.
• Some suggest that cities are increasing their rate of informal social control. This means that individual citizens are exerting new influence over fellow citizens (which was lost when air-conditioning made everyone leave their front porches and retreat inside). The crime increases of the pre-Victorian era were said to be controlled by society expressing its disgust and reasserting its authority, so the thought is not without precedent.
• Finally, the population is simply getting older and that alone could be the biggest reason for the declines.
Date on the decrease of crime is below.
If you have suggestions, please feel free to weigh in on the topic.
Crime in America.Net Staff
Crime Statistics for the United States
There are two primary sources for crime data in the United States. The first is crime reported to law enforcement agencies, processed at the state level and reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Many criminologists see this data as an index of serious crimes that are reported to police.
The problem is that the majority of crime (and approximately half of violent crimes) are not reported to law enforcement agencies. Crimes are not reported because victims see the event as a personal matter ( a fight between friends or family members) or a theft that the victim considers minor or the victim’s belief that law enforcement cannot resolve the issue (a theft where the likelihood of getting property back or resulting in the arrest of the offender is unlikely).
To deal with the crime reporting issue, the Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice under the US Department of Justice created the National Crime Survey. The National Crime Survey collects data from households and individuals (similar to the Census Bureau) to get a picture of total crime.
The latest data involving crimes reported to law enforcement agencies includes:
For the latest data from the National Crime Survey, see:
The bottom line of the two reports is that violent and property crimes are at record lows for the country and, generally speaking, have been decreasing for the last two decades. While this news is of little consequence to those living in areas where crime continues to be a problem, it is never-the-less good news for a country that suffered large increases in crime and violence for decades since the mid 1960’s.
Please note that there are additional measures focusing on fear of crime, crimes committed against students, substance abuse and many other criminological variables. Most are cited within this site and most indicate a downward trend that matches the FBI’s report and the National Crime Survey.
Please see http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2008/data/table_01.html for a long-range view of crime rates, especially violent crime rates.
The summation from the National Crime Survey (cited above) is as follows: “Violent and property crime rates in 2008 remain at the lowest levels recorded since 1973, the first year that such data were collected. The rate of every major violent and property crime measured by BJS fell between 1999 and 2008. The overall violent crime rate fell 41 percent and the property crime rate declined by 32 percent during the last 10 years.”

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Peter Sperry

“• Incarceration (putting people in prison) is often cited as lowering crime rates, but the total impact is a matter of debate.”

When the painfully obvious answer is too politically incorrect to tolerate — Do more research.

Harry Reisig

Excellent posting Adam, and I think you make the good point that it exceedingly difficult to determine what works in the aggregate, but rather point to programs that have focused on particular problems (urban gang violence, drug and mental health courts). As more data is coming in from the growth of evidence based practices, we will be able to refine and improve programs that are effective and apply those lessons intelligently to bring them fully up to scale. At the same time, we need to push for ineffective options, like long terms of incarceration and release without re-entry programming to be cut back. While we don’t yet have a grand theory of criminology, we do have good evidence for what works and what hurts. Hopefully we can leverage these insights into policies that get smarter on crime, rather than just tough.

Louis D Rubenstein

Two possible additional factors are:
Improved special education in the school system
Video games that keeep kids occupied and help to let out aggressive fantasies