Time magazine writes on America’s falling crime rate.
Health care, climate change, terrorism — is it even possible to solve big problems? The mood in Washington is not very hopeful these days. But take a look at what has happened to one of the biggest, toughest problems facing the country 20 years ago: violent crime. For years, Americans ranked crime at or near the top of their list of urgent issues. Every politician, from alderman to President, was expected to have a crime-fighting agenda, yet many experts despaired of solutions. By 1991, the murder rate in the U.S. reached a near record 9.8 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, criminologists began to theorize that a looming generation of so-called superpredators would soon make things even worse.
Then, a breakthrough. Crime rates started falling. Apart from a few bumps and plateaus, they continued to drop through boom times and recessions, through peace and war, under Democrats and Republicans. Last year’s murder rate may be the lowest since the mid-1960s, according to preliminary statistics released by the Department of Justice. The human dimension of this turnaround is extraordinary: had the rate remained unchanged, an additional 170,000 Americans would have been murdered in the years since 1992. That’s more U.S. lives than were lost in combat in World War I, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq — combined. In a single year, 2008, lower crime rates meant 40,000 fewer rapes, 380,000 fewer robberies, half a million fewer aggravated assaults and 1.6 million fewer burglaries than we would have seen if rates had remained at peak levels.
There’s a catch, though. No one can convincingly explain exactly how the crime problem was solved. Police chiefs around the country credit improved police work. Demographers cite changing demographics of an aging population. Some theorists point to the evolution of the drug trade at both the wholesale and retail levels, while for veterans of the Clinton Administration, the preferred explanation is their initiative to hire more cops. Renegade economist Steven Levitt has speculated that legalized abortion caused the drop in crime. (Fewer unwanted babies in the 1970s and ’80s grew up to be thugs in the 1990s and beyond.)
The truth probably lies in a mix of these factors, plus one more: the steep rise in the number of Americans in prison. As local, state and federal governments face an era of diminished resources, they will need a better understanding of how and why crime rates tumbled. A sour economy need not mean a return to lawless streets, but continued success in fighting crime will require more brains, especially in those neighborhoods where violence is still rampant and public safety is a tattered dream.
The Lockup Factor
In his book Why Crime Rates Fell, Tufts University sociologist John Conklin concluded that up to half of the improvement was due to a single factor: more people in prison. The U.S. prison population grew by more than half a million during the 1990s and continued to grow, although more slowly, in the next decade. Go back half a century: as sentencing became more lenient in the 1960s and ’70s, the crime rate started to rise. When lawmakers responded to the crime wave by building prisons and mandating tough sentences, the number of prisoners increased and the number of crimes fell.
Common sense, you might think. But this is not a popular conclusion among criminologists, according to Conklin. “There is a tendency, perhaps for ideological reasons, not to want to see the connection,” he says…
Criminologist Conklin believes that two statistics in particular — median age and the unemployment rate — help explain the ebb and flow of crime. Violence is typically a young man’s vice; it has been said that the most effective crime-fighting tool is a 30th birthday. The arrival of teenage baby boomers in the 1960s coincided with a rise in crime, and rates have declined as America has grown older. The median age in 1990, near the peak of the crime wave, was 32, according to Conklin. A decade later, it was over 35. Today, it is 36-plus. (It is also true that today’s young men are less prone to crime. The juvenile crime rate in 2007, the most recent available, was the lowest in at least a generation.)
“The effect of unemployment,” Conklin adds, “is problematic.” Indeed it is. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute dissected this issue in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. “As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008,” she wrote, “criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the ‘root causes’ theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over 7 million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s.” To Mac Donald, this is proof that data-driven police work and tougher sentencing are the answer to crime — not social-welfare programs. Conklin thinks it may be too soon to tell. “The unemployment rate began to spike less than a year ago. We may yet see the pressure show up in crime rates,” he says. It’s fair to say, though, that the belief in a simple cause-and-effect relationship between income and crime has worn pretty thin.
Quite an admission for a magazine of the establishment. This and the Unz article make it look like there’s not going to be a day when things get so bad that the traditional American population is forced to wake up and realize what it’s lost.
Jailing should also be applauded for having eugenic benefits, as some of the worst men are locked up during many of their fertile years.