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January 2, 2010

"Why are violent crime rates falling?"

The title of this post is the question that, in my opinion, should be the top research and policy concern for all academics and lawmakers in 2010.  It also is the head of this terrific new Washington Post editorial, which I must quote at great length because it is so astute:

As you have no doubt heard, the first 10 years of the 21st century were dreadful -- a lost decade of terrorism, war and economic stagnation.  There is some truth to that portrayal.  But in one significant respect, the awful Aughties were practically a golden age.  We refer to the continued progress the United States is making against homicide and other violent crime.

According to some conventional wisdom, economic trouble breeds lawlessness. Yet in the first half of 2009, as unemployment skyrocketed, reported murders, forcible rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults decreased by 4.4 percent compared with the first half of 2008, according to the FBI.  The decline in homicide was especially striking: down 29.8 percent in Los Angeles, 14 percent in Atlanta, 10 percent in Boston. With 461 murders through Dec. 27, New York was on track for the lowest number since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963....

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago.  In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence -- then fell to 5.7 in 1999.  Many wondered whether this "Great Crime Decline" could be sustained for another 10 years.  The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965.  And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still.  Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

Obviously, one murder is one murder too many.  U.S. rates of violent crime remain above those of other industrial democracies.  And certain places, including Baltimore, where murder rose 9.5 percent in the first half of 2009, have progressed less dramatically than others.  Still, this substantial and sustained reduction in murder, once thought impossible, ranks as a major national achievement.

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.

This editorial strike me as so effective and important because it provides the proper context and critical questions for considering crime and punishment policies as we head into a new decade.  Despite new terrorism concerns and the extreme media attention that surrounds the most awful crimes (especially when they involve young and pretty victims), America continues to become a safer and safer place to live.  We should start this new decade with a healthy appreciation and thanks for the reality that, from a criminal justice perspective, the recent past has been filled with more success than failure and the immediate future looks bright.

We also must not become complacent in light of our (surprising?) modern success.  In particular, we all should be working extra hard trying to figure out exactly what has been working in this arena.  There will surely be no obvious or easy answers : because social realities and human behavior are often so dynamic and unpredictable, any claims of a simple solution are likely to be simply wrong.  But, aided by thoughtful study and unbiased research, policy-makers can and should be able to make educated guesses as to what laws and polices are more likely (and less likely) to continue the positive trends of the last 20 years.  And, critically, in an era of economic struggles and tight budgets, effectiveness needs to be assessed in light of both general crime reduction and cost-effectiveness for limited taxpayer dollars.

This editorial nicely noting that "new lifesaving medical techniques" might play a part in these stories, but I fear that broader policy debates concerning education and health-care reform rarely appreciate their possible connection to crime and punishment.  All criminal offending statistics reveal that crime is disproportionately committed by those with the least educational achievement and by those who suffer from mental illnesses and substance abuse.  General improvements in the provision of education and health care over the last two decades may be an important (and largely overlooked) factor in reduced crime rates, and perhaps continued improvements in these areas of social policy could pay criminal justice dividends in the years ahead.

January 2, 2010 at 10:22 AM | Permalink


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I am surprised they did not include the election of Obama as a factor in the drop in crime. Not mentioned by biased left wing propaganda organ for the Democrat Party.

Young males in the aughties are either,

1) in prison or other supervised program, thanks to sentencing guidelines, a major lawyer achievement, that coincided with a quick 40% drop in all crime;


2) at home, addicted to screen based activities, TV, computer, video games, texting. An intervening effect of this addiction is obesity. They are too heavy to get up, and to go into the street to meet and beat;


3) were aborted in the 1990's;


4) they finally figured out that crime is too much hard work (kids bustin', working 12 hour days in a crack house) and does not pay as well as welfare does, subsidizing the full time Roman Orgy lifestyle, starting at age 12.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 2, 2010 11:44:28 AM

What about the Burger and Renquist Court curtailing what some might consider the excesses of the Warren Court? By absolving defendants for what at times were minor violations of procedure by the police, one might argue that you simply emboldened the criminal for another spree.

Posted by: jason | Jan 2, 2010 11:47:20 AM

Very important but uncertain factor spotted by Prof. Berman. It should be verifiable using existing records.

"General improvements in the provision of education and health care over the last two decades may be an important (and largely overlooked) factor in reduced crime rates, and perhaps continued improvements in these areas of social policy could pay criminal justice dividends in the years ahead."

It takes about 10 years to get the impact of a change in the law. In 1990, the IDEA was enacted. It restricted the disciplining and expulsion of kids with mental problems.


It lead to an explosion in the use of medication and other treatments in children. About 2% of children take stimulant medication. The rate of ADHD is about 5%. Prior to this law, the treatment rate may have been 0.5%. The law forced impulsive kids into treatment. Untreated males may commit dozens of small crimes a day.

If confirmed by research, this would be another great, under-appreciated, unintended lawyer achievement in crime control. (Not sarcastic.)

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 2, 2010 12:10:59 PM

in Italy we had 2.000 homicides in 1991 and now we have 600 per year.

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Jan 2, 2010 12:38:13 PM

The 20 year overall decline in the murder rate coincides with the highest number of executions over a 20 year peroid since Harry Truman was President.

But the Washington Post is mystified whether there's a connection there somewhere.

The 20 year overall decline in the crime rate coincides with a substantial increase in the number of criminals in prison (the disgrace of "incarceration nation" and all that).

The Washington Post grudgingly admits there might be some teensy-weensy causal factor there, but otherwise remains mystified.

The recent, quite serious recession likewise saw a significant decrease in the crime rate, but we are assured that, these facts notwithstanding, it's economic hardship that causes crime.

My goodness. Now I have this bridge in Brooklyn................

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2010 1:43:06 PM

Since 2000 we saw a breakneck drop both in death sentences as well as executions and, in the same time, we assisted to a remarkable stability in the homicide rate. Death sentences are now a little more than one hundred per year and executions were only 53 in 2006, 42 in 2007 and a mere 37 in 2008. On the other side the homicide rate looks nailed between 5,5 and 5,7. This can be explained in two ways: prospective murderers do not know that the probability to be condemned to death is even rarer than before, or the whole theory of the deterrence of capital punishment is an enormous bullshit. I am inclined to the second explanation.

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Jan 2, 2010 1:53:42 PM

claudio --

Italy is a great place, but perhaps Mussolini's grandchildren are not ideally situated to lecture the United States about what penalties it shall be permitted to employ.

As for your delicately expressed skepticism about the deterrent value of the death penalty, please analyse the deterrence studies set forth at the website given below and explain why ALL of them are wrong. Thanks.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2010 2:17:14 PM

Dear Mr John Doe
Your country is a great place too (I suppose), but the grandchildren of slave owners and lynchers (say nothing about torture) must be very cautious about deterrence. I suggest you to read this from Professor Fagan http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/osjcl/Articles/Volume4_1/Fagan.pdf and to reflect about some facts of life:
In 2002 Americans were very happy because they had only 16.638 criminal homicides. They were right because, from 1984 to 1993, criminal homicides were 22.000 per year and 25.000 in 1991. Au contraire, in the same 2002, in Italy we were very afraid because, with a population that is grosso modo one fifth of the American one, we had 638 homicides. We were very concerned about it, even if those 638 were less than one third the 2.000 homicides we had in 1991. Americans love to think the drop in homicides is a benefit of the death penalty. We cannot agree because we are a death penalty free country. Actually Italy ended capital punishment in 1877 and had it again only under fascism. In those sad years the homicide rate was five times bigger that we have now, and, in the twenty years following the definitive end of the death penalty (1948-1968), the homicide rate dropped from 5 to 1,4. Something very similar happened in Canada in the years that followed the end of capital punishment in 1976. Since then its homicide rate fell down constantly.

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Jan 2, 2010 3:59:29 PM

Bill Otis: I have to say that the "Mussolini's children" crack was cheap and uncalled for. I too am reluctant to have other countries dictate/influence our criminal justice policies but your "pot shot" diminished the strength of your otherwise meritorious argument.

Posted by: mjs | Jan 2, 2010 5:18:12 PM

claudio --

"Your country is a great place too (I suppose), but the grandchildren of slave owners and lynchers (say nothing about torture) must be very cautious about deterrence."

What Americans "must be" cautious about isn't really for you to say, now is it? And since you mention nothing about the United States other than slavery, lynching and torture, forgive me for being a bit skeptical that you actually think the United States is a great place -- notwithstanding that that's what you SHOULD think, since, among many other things, we liberated you from the facsism of which you belatedly complain. We also protected you and the rest of Western Europe from the ravenous Soviet Union for a good forty years, while you sat on your backsides preening about what it pleases you to think of as your superiority. The beneifts of US bravery, benevolence and generosity go unmentioned in your post. It's only about lynching, etc.

My, my.

Nonetheless, it is obviously true that one should be cautious in drawing conclusions about deterrence. It is for precisely that reason that the findings of 20 independent studies are to be preferred to those of a single tendentious one.

Not that it makes a difference. You would trash the United States for the death penalty no matter WHAT the facts about deterrence are, isn't that so?

"In 2002 Americans were very happy because they had only 16.638 criminal homicides."

Really? I live here, and I never met a single person who said, "Gee, I'm very happy because in 2002 we had only 16.638 criminal homicides." But I'm always happy to learn what's really going on in the country from those who have never been here, and whose only ostensible interest in the USA is to compare its "barbarism" with their wonderfulness.

Personally, I think having that number of homicides is appalling. Still, it's thousands fewer than the number we had at the end of our disastrous death penalty de facto moratorium (from about 1965 to 1980). One would think this should make us "cautious," to use your word, before returning to those days.

P.S. Indonesia and Kuwait, both of which have the DP, have slightly lower murder rates than Italy. Japan and Singapore, both of which also have the DP, have murder rates less than half Italy's.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2010 5:20:15 PM

I clicked to note my expectation that, rather than insightful and/or reasonably objective analysis about the causes of this drop in crime, we will more likely get a lot of so-called experts -- both in popular media and academia -- interpreting the drop as new, crystal-clear evidence that just so happens to support the correctness of their own preferred (and pre-existing) social/political/demographic/criminological theories.

I see by these comments that it has already started.

Gay marriage, anyone? Heller? The Bush Doctrine? Megachurces? Welfare reform ending cycles of dependency and teaching poor people personal responsibility? Availability of safe, legal abortion reducing the number of unwanted, abused children? Environmental regulation curtailing the exposure of children to lead and other brain-damage-causing pollutants? This is easy: (1) take anything you can plausibly assert makes society more just/fair/safe/upright/law-abiding/tolerant of individual difference/respectful of traditional mores; and (2) infer causation.

Posted by: Sid | Jan 2, 2010 7:56:30 PM


I agree with you. I think the problem with the analysis in the article is that it's too narrow. It's looking for a policy and/or legal answer when the answer is in fact generational. I don't think it's any coincidence that the falling of the crime rate coincided with the aging of Generation X. There have been lots of studies that have shown that this generation, born at the height of the cold war, is one of the most violent ever recorded. SC mentions video games. The truth is that the largest consumers of violent video games is not teens. It's Generation X.

If I can find it again I will post a link to a seminar by the video game developer behind Modern War that looks at the hard numbers.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 2, 2010 8:28:18 PM

Sid -

Your point is a fair one with this caveat: For months we have heard on this blog one complaint after another about years of increasing prison population and its costs. Seldom if ever have we heard about its benefits. Now there is evidence that the increase in incarceration has coincided very closely with the significant decrease in crime.

The criminal justice system is premised on the idea that there is a link between crime and punishment. Now maybe that premise is incorrect, but it's very nearly universal. If it's true, as almost all societies have thought for a very long time, then this article shows that the almost uniformly negative view of "incarceration nation" is at best incomplete and at worst significantly in error. It is fair to point this out.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2010 8:46:20 PM

mjs --

Your criticism is justified. I let my impatience with foreign criticism of the United States get the best of me. My "children of Mussolini" crack was out of line, and I apologize. You did the right thing to bring me to book for it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2010 9:30:19 PM

Anon --

I saw your recently expressed curiosity about where I get my time for the Internet, but would respectfully submit that it's irrelevant to the subject of "Sentencing Law and Policy."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2010 9:38:34 PM

I think if you count all the dead, Middle Eastern, civilians and troops, you will more than account for your observed deficit.

You have shipped out your killers, in the main.


Posted by: Dr Nigel Leigh Oldfield | Jan 3, 2010 6:29:33 AM

Dr. Oldfield. Our military is more disciplined and has less criminality than the general population. Criminals cannot get into the military services.

They kill the terrorists so that you may be safer, and freer.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 3, 2010 7:41:09 AM

How twee a set of ideas.


Posted by: Dr Nigel Leigh Oldfield | Jan 3, 2010 10:55:40 AM

I am fed up. Every time I try to write something about American death penalty some Jack in the box jumps out shouting about Mussolini, the SWW and the like. Basta! If Mr John Doe wants we can meet in a blog about history, but this is a blog about American law. But I am afraid Mr Doe prefers do not discuss of facts and prefers John Lott who writes:
“This simple comparison really doesn’t prove anything. The 12 states without the death penalty have long enjoyed relatively low murder rates due to factors unrelated”

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Jan 3, 2010 4:43:34 PM

claudio --

My reference to Mussolini was out of line, as mjs said and I have acknowledged. I regret having done it. Maybe it's time for you to acknowledge there's more to the United States than slavery, lynching and "torture."

As to my supposed refusal to deal in facts: I furnished you with roughly twenty studies full of facts (found, to repeat, here: http://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPDeterrence.htm) and you have not looked at, much less seriously considered, a single one of them. Who's refusing to deal in facts?

You don't so much as mention McVeigh, the Beltway sniper, John Couey or any of the other hideous cases that remind our people of why we have the death penalty. Who's refusing to deal in facts?

I pointed out to you that Japan, a highly developed country, has and uses the death penalty, and has a murder rate less than half of abolitionist Italy's. You just walk past this inconvenient truth. Who's refusing to deal in facts?

I don't believe I've ever cited John Lott in the DP discussion, so I don't really know what you're talking about. But it might be of interest to know that, while Lott was once persona non grata on the American Left, now -- since Heller -- he's turned into something of a folk hero.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 3, 2010 6:30:45 PM

Im not too sure myself. Maybe they started giving more violent felons jobs. Im a lower leve violent and my anger went away when I became Sovereign shortly after the recessional peek.

Posted by: Jim | Sep 6, 2010 5:04:54 AM

I am too sure that this corrupt politician will never understand our people.

Posted by: Monto | Sep 6, 2010 10:14:09 AM

Nishan Medical Clinic, Salmiya - We care for you - Nishan Medical Clinic is an upcoming Polyclinic identifying its footprints in the healthcare sector in Kuwait.

Posted by: Pediatrician in Kuwait | Aug 22, 2015 3:29:32 AM

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