Let’s Do the Crime Drop Again

Because the abortion/crime theory put forward by Steve Levitt and John Donohue in this 2001 paper was so jarring, on so many levels, it drew great interest and occasional controversy. The noise really began in 1999, when a preliminary version of the paper was written about. So by 2003, when I first wrote about Levitt in the N.Y. Times Magazine, I treated the Donohue/Levitt paper as a piece of history, since it had already been so thoroughly discussed.

When Levitt and I sat down to write Freakonomics, we decided that yes, we would certainly revisit the link between legalized abortion and the fall of crime a generation later, but, in part because this theory had already been public for several years, we would expand the discussion to address other reasons why crime has fallen so dramatically and broadly across the U.S. over the past decade and a half.

We were able to do this was because Levitt had written a new paper called “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990′s: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not.” I think it is a very good paper (I am of course biased) because it takes a terribly complex issue, acknowledges the many dimensions in which it is complex, and then matter-of-factly walks us through each of the 10 major factors under discussion, using data and logic to argue that Factor X played a role in the crime drop and that Factor Y didn’t.

The reason I’m writing this post at this late date, and the reason I’m encouraging anyone who’s interested in the subject to read the “Understanding” paper linked above, is that a lot of the discussion about Freakonomics implies that legalized abortion alone has been responsible for the drop in crime, and that all other explanations are baloney. This, however, is not remotely the argument that our book puts forth.

In Chapter 4, we analyze the factors that were widely thought to have been major contributors to the 1990′s crime drop but which, according to the data, weren’t. These factors are:

– The strong economy

– The increased use of capital punishment

– Innovative policing strategies

– Gun control laws

– Concealed weapons laws

– The aging of the population

We also discuss the four major factors that, according to the data, were responsible for the crime drop:

– Increased reliance on prisons

– Increased number of police

– The bursting of the crack bubble

– The legalization of abortion

It is easy to understand why the abortion/crime link gets the most attention, but that is also too bad, since it tends to polarize a debate that would be better served by nuance and fact as opposed to bright lines and emotion.

That said, here’s a pretty interesting blog post from “Jihad of Umar” (whose author promises to deliver “my rants on Islam, Muslims, the War on Muslims, politics, culture, hip-hop, boxing, driving a taxi and anything else I take a notion to write about”). He’s got some inside takes on two of the four factors that Freakonomics cites as causes of the crime drop: the crack market and imprisonment.

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  1. kb says:

    We’ve been hearing about an upsurge in violent crime over the last year. While we’re not back to 80′s levels, there’s been a noticible change. In my neighborhood, which already had a violent crime rate twice the national average for urban areas (and on some blocks roughly 10 times that rate), violent crime doubled in 2005.

    A measure of a theory is how it holds up over time. What is the prediction of crime based on Levitt’s analysis?

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  2. kb says:

    We’ve been hearing about an upsurge in violent crime over the last year. While we’re not back to 80′s levels, there’s been a noticible change. In my neighborhood, which already had a violent crime rate twice the national average for urban areas (and on some blocks roughly 10 times that rate), violent crime doubled in 2005.

    A measure of a theory is how it holds up over time. What is the prediction of crime based on Levitt’s analysis?

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  3. metarhyme says:

    Dubner’s Umar link above doubts Levitt’s abortion conjecture for lower crime rates. In addition to jail time, Umar thought an absence of criminals was due to teen crack dealers killing each other off. He also says that they have become more restrained about doing this, indicating that the new guys may be around for a while. Sorry about that kb.

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  4. metarhyme says:

    Dubner’s Umar link above doubts Levitt’s abortion conjecture for lower crime rates. In addition to jail time, Umar thought an absence of criminals was due to teen crack dealers killing each other off. He also says that they have become more restrained about doing this, indicating that the new guys may be around for a while. Sorry about that kb.

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  5. SpinyNorman says:

    I’ve always been precariously balanced upon the fence separating the sides of the abortion issue. Given my ambiguity, I could, and often did, argue either position with equal fervor and aplomb. Steven Levitt’s book has knocked me, decidedly, off that fence! Prima Facie? Perhaps not – but certainly government cheese for thought!

    The irony here is that R.v.W may have accomplished more Urban Renewal than all of the loony lefty social engineering programs combined. But perhaps even more incongruous is the strong likelihood that R.v.W has fostered more law and order than all collective conservative efforts as well. This creates quite the Conservative dilemma, while reinforcing the Libertarian position that when it comes to government – Less is more!

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  6. SpinyNorman says:

    I’ve always been precariously balanced upon the fence separating the sides of the abortion issue. Given my ambiguity, I could, and often did, argue either position with equal fervor and aplomb. Steven Levitt’s book has knocked me, decidedly, off that fence! Prima Facie? Perhaps not – but certainly government cheese for thought!

    The irony here is that R.v.W may have accomplished more Urban Renewal than all of the loony lefty social engineering programs combined. But perhaps even more incongruous is the strong likelihood that R.v.W has fostered more law and order than all collective conservative efforts as well. This creates quite the Conservative dilemma, while reinforcing the Libertarian position that when it comes to government – Less is more!

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  7. Art K. says:

    Anyone think about the link between cell phones and communication technology and crime drop. It’s become harder to get away with a crime thx to cell phones and information technology starting in the early 90s

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