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August 3, 2009

"The Real Murder Mystery? It’s the Low Crime Rate"

The title of this post is the headline of this great article from the weekend's Week in Review in the New York Times.  Here are just a few snippets from a great read:

Maybe it is time to call in one of those clairvoyants who help detectives solve the case. Because no one else can explain what criminals have been doing in the first half of 2009....

No single lens — sociological, econometrical, liberal or conservative — seems an adequate one through which to view crime.  The economy, which seems as if it should be fundamental, has never been a good predictor; the Prohibition era was far more violent than the Great Depression.  Adding prison beds has not helped; the incarceration rate has marched grimly upward for decades, while the crime rate has zigzagged up and down, seemingly oblivious.  Years ago, criminologists thought demographics explained a lot — remember the warnings about thousands of cold-blooded, teenage “superpredators” in the mid-1990s? — but demographics cannot shed light on what is happening now.  Improved policing deserves credit for bigger declines in certain cities, but not the overall national trend....

The search for a silver bullet — a single factor that could explain the steady drop in crime since the mid-1990s — has taken theorists far afield.  There is the abortion theory, which proposes that legalized abortion reduced the number of unwanted children who turned to a life of crime.  It’s a seductive explanation for United States data, but it does not bear out in other countries that legalized abortion in the 1970s, said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  There is the gun theory, which posits that expanded gun ownership rights have deterred criminals who now must consider whether their victims are armed.  But that does not explain the most significant decline in the country, in New York City, where gun ownership is low, said Mr. Zimring, who dedicated part of his book, “The Great American Crime Decline,” to debunking such theories. (Despite writing that exhaustive volume, Professor Zimring admits that for criminologists, “the score is Know: 2; Don’t Know: 8.”)...

One reason for the lack of answers is lack of money, said Alfred Blumstein, a prominent criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “The National Institutes of Health spends $400 million a year on dental research,” he said. “The National Institute of Justice spends $50 million a year on criminal justice research.”  Perhaps as a result, police departments and prosecutors can be swayed by fads, spending millions on programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., which came under fire from critics who said it lacked a proven success record (it later changed its strategy).  “Police research is to research like military music is to music,” Mr. Krisberg said. “It has never matured to be a very sophisticated science.”...

While the decline may not have taken hold in the minds of the public, it has undermined a cherished belief, particularly among liberals, in root causes — that criminals are born of misery and the limited options of poverty.  “There are people that are putting up with an awful lot of suffering, and they’re not complaining all that much,” said Andrew Karmen, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

But the fact that so few forces have a demonstrable effect on crime can be viewed, in a twisted kind of way, as good news.  The decline, Mr. Zimring said, has shown that it isn’t necessary to accomplish major feats, like improving education or raising wages, or punitive ones, like increasing prison sentences, to bring crime down.  Smart policing can have an effect.  “Crime isn’t an essential part of cities as we know them,” Mr. Zimring said. Instead, it is a mystery with a direction all its own, one that may be beyond the reach of public policy.  Which is easier to tolerate when that direction is down.

August 3, 2009 at 05:45 PM | Permalink


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"Instead, it is a mystery with a direction all its own, one that may be beyond the reach of public policy."

Ummm, does that mean we can eliminate the entire judicial apparatus of this country? That might even be better than "kill all the lawyers".

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 3, 2009 7:01:53 PM

Where are the data that crime is falling? I cannot find crime victimization population survey data after 2005. Incident reporting is unreliable, self-serving, and worthless for research.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 3, 2009 7:20:04 PM

There is no mystery. Locking them up works. The criminals can't be in two places at once. Check the graph from the Bureau of Prisons. Lock up rate is the inverse of crime rate.


Posted by: wcharriman | Sep 6, 2009 9:10:16 AM

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