July 20, 2009
Good (and surprising) news about crime rates
This new piece from the Washington Post, which is headlined "Major Cities' Plummeting Crime Rates Mystifying," provides both good news on crime rates and a new reason to wonder if anyone can assess with any confidence what makes crime rates rise and fall. Here are excerpts:
Violent crime has plummeted in the Washington area and in major cities across the country, a trend criminologists describe as baffling and unexpected. The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.
"Experts did not see this coming at all," said Andrew Karmen, a criminologist and professor of sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.... Criminologists have different theories about why crime is down so much, although many agree that the common belief that crime is connected to the economy is false....
The District is on track to have fewer killings than in any year since 1964, when the population was about 760,000 and Vietnam War protests were just beginning. In the years since, the city has struggled at times with civil unrest, the arrival of crack cocaine and the rise of street gangs. In 1991, the District was known as the murder capital of the United States, recording 479 that year. This year, there have been 79....
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, said the drop in homicides this year is notable, especially considering the weather. "This does come at an important time," he said. "We're midway through summer, and summer is when you see the most significant increase in street violence. Departments have had to be more strategic in terms of gangs and hot spots." Wexler said that crime isn't down everywhere. Baltimore and Dallas are among some cities experiencing a higher number of killings compared with last year.
Gary LaFree, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, said it has taken police decades to figure out how to effectively target crime. "In the '60s, crime was like an act of God, like a tornado or earthquake," LaFree said. "Where policing has changed is that we've gotten the idea this is a problem we created and there are human solutions to it. Obviously, crime is not randomly distributed. It is connected to hot spots in cities and other areas."
LaFree and others agree that crime doesn't automatically go up when the economy is poor. Property crime is also trending down in many jurisdictions, including the District, Prince George's and Montgomery. The FBI reported last week that bank robberies across the country fell in the first quarter of the year, with 1,498 reported, compared with 1,604 in the first quarter of 2008. Criminologists point to the Great Depression in the 1930s as a time of relatively low crime compared with the Roaring Twenties, when the country experienced more violence.
Okay team, in an effort to generate some debate, I will throw out two not-quite-absurd hypothesis for the unexpected drop in crime being reported here:
Hypothesis #1 — More guns, less crime: In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Heller and (silly?) concerns about possible new gun control efforts under and Obama Administration, gun sales have been up a lot over the last year. Perhaps this new encouraging crime data reveals that more people packing heat really can help reduce crime rates.
Hypothesis #2 — More hope, less crime: The election of Barack Obama, who ran on a campaign of hope, surely embodies the cliche that anyone can grow up in America and become President. In addition to breaking barriers with historic appointments to the positions of Supreme Court Justice, Attorney General and Solicitor General, President Obama has often preached messages of personally responsibility as well as hope. Perhaps giving more folks good reasons to hope leads to fewer folks having bad reasons to commit crimes.
July 20, 2009 at 02:12 PM | Permalink
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The poor people who are usually the victims don't got any money to steal anymore?
Posted by: Matt | Jul 20, 2009 2:15:59 PM
How about, hmmmmmm, incarceration continues to (a) deter and (b) incapacitate.
Posted by: federalist | Jul 20, 2009 2:32:13 PM
The District has made gun ownership hard enough that even after Heller I have a hard time believing that is the source of any reduction. AFAIK it is still impossible for anyone who is actually a DC resident to purchase a handgun because there are no dealers. The only folks Heller has helped so far are folks like Heller himself who had firearms stored outside DC.
Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 20, 2009 2:56:09 PM
Hypothesis #3 - Longer sentences, and record breaking incarceration rates, less crime.
Hypothesis #4 - No enforcement of drug laws, and herding into no enforcement crime zones, less crime.
Hypothesis #5 - The poor are so rich now, crime is a waste of their valuable time.
Hypothesis #6 - People are watching CSI and learning to be neater with their dead bodies.
This article does not report on crime victim surveys. It is a worthless piece of left wing propaganda.
Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 20, 2009 4:15:51 PM
The article does not give the Washington, DC 2008 rates for violent crime and homicide so it is not possible to tell if the preliminary rates released by the police differ significantly from the 2004 to 2007 averages of 1,440 and 32.2 per 100,000 residents for violent crime and murder. It is very common for a local newspaper to compare the current and previous year figures and ignore five and ten year trends. My guess is the differences from the average were within the normal range.
The gist of the article is the police claim that improved tactics have made a difference in reducing both property and violent crime rates. At least half of the crime is confined to "hot spots" and in DC it is probably more than half. They were talking about good intelligence and fast response and both are very effective crime control tactics. If there really was a significant reduction the improved tactics were most likely to be an important factor.
The link between recent SCOTUS decisions and election rhetoric and crime rates based on FY08 data is either weak or absent.
Posted by: John Neff | Jul 20, 2009 4:20:10 PM
Where is the Scalia Bounce?
Posted by: pubdefender | Jul 20, 2009 6:07:42 PM
Assuming the stats are correct, and not a police cover-up, it takes ten years for a law to become understood and to show its full impact. Murder has jumped in many cities. But look for the full Scalia Bounce in 5 more years.
Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 20, 2009 7:46:34 PM
The other possible explanation? Criminal law policy has no effect on crime and is mostly irrelevant, a waste of time and money. We know, under lawyer management, there are 100 crimes for every criminal procedure. This criminal procedure is often applied to innocent people. The criminal law is in utter failure save to generate worthless government make work. It is time to fire the rent seeking lawyer from the criminal law. This incompetent is a threat to public safety.
Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 21, 2009 9:11:55 AM
Maybe it's the "brutalization effect" of war. Crime spiked during and after WW II, during and after Vietnam, and now there is a new "Veteran's Court" that, along with fewer violent images of war carnage on the news, could help keep the crime rate from spiking again.
Posted by: George | Jul 21, 2009 12:23:18 PM
It is important to compare and contrast violent crime to property crime, and to differentiate between the two. Crime rate overly generalized is plagued with inaccuracies.
Posted by: PCB | Jul 21, 2009 3:01:42 PM
No one could be naive enough to believe that Presidential speeches reduce crime. What exactly is the evidence for that?
Federalist nailed it: When the people who commit crime are in the slammer, there's less crime.
This story also undermines the theory that crime is caused by tough times. There have been plenty of tough times, and rising unemployment, over the last two years, and crime has gone down.
Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 21, 2009 8:42:45 PM