Experts Continue to Express Amazement at Declining Crime

It was like the 1990s all over again when the FBI released the latest crime statistics last week. Violent crime fell by five percent; property crime fell by three percent. Those are the sorts of crime declines that were commonplace in the 1990s.

But what was really reminiscent of the 1990s was the way the media covered it.  The New York Times is a perfect example.  For starters, the set of criminologists who give quotes in the story are the exact same criminologists who were called upon by the Times each year in the 1990s to assess the latest numbers: James Alan Fox, Alfred Blumstein, and Franklin Zimring.  (You may remember James Alan Fox as the portent of doom in the abortion and crime chapter of Freakonomics.)

And these experts are just as puzzled by the recent crime drop as they were 20 years ago. “Remarkable,” says James Alan Fox.  “Striking,” says Blumstein.

(Stockbyte)

Apparently, everyone expected crime to rise because of the weak economy, which I find strange, because there is zero evidence of any relationship between violent crime and the economy, and a relatively weak one between property crime and the economy. Plus, relative to 2009, the economy in 2010 was substantially improved.

Not that I claim to understand why crime fell last year, either. Any ameliorative effects of legalized abortion have run their course by now, so that is not the story. The number of people behind bars, for the first time in decades, is actually declining slightly. I suspect, given the ill health of state and local governments, that the number of police officers is not increasing either. So, out of all the forces that have heavily influenced crime in the last few decades, the only one unaccounted for is changes in drug markets. I haven’t been paying close enough attention to know whether this might be part of the story or not. Most likely, last year’s decline in crime was just noise, likely to be followed by an uptick in crime this year.


Ryan

Video games and other forms of cheap, sedentary entertainment.

What do I win?

S Patel

Great Call.

matt

I have always suspected there is a correlation between crime reduction and poor economic.conditions for the basic fact of high unemployment tends to leave people at home. They are spending less so therefore are not out and about at night to be victims of crimes like assault and robbery again just a thought about correlation.

JohnJ

I don't know either, but I know some are claiming that it's related to the growing number of concealed carry laws.

Nick g

Is it possible it could be the crime is being under reported? I remember hearing a This American Life story about a police offer who was targeted and later falsely arrested in NYC for reporting crimes in a way that would make their effectiveness look bad. Though I will admit one story does not a case make but might be something at least worth a look into?

KW

Isn't demographics the simplest explanation? The cohort of 18-25 year-olds, who are responsible for the most crimes, has been declining for the last few years.

Jason

I would guess the explosion in the use of mobile phones would be a factor. It's much harder to find an isolated victim.

Liz

Could the abortion effect be exponential, or has that already been accounted for? It's been ~40 years, since abortion has been legalized, time enough for two generations. Could there be an "echo" of babies that weren't born because their potential parents were never born, or does the math already account for that?

John B

Two contradictory explanations.

1. The huge increase in cell phones with cameras and other such devises. It is hard to do eomthing criminal without being seen. Crminals realize this, even thought the "experts" do not. A deterent.

2. The definition of what is a crime. Look at the news for this past weekend. There were near-riots or gang fights in many cities. The number arrested will be nowhere close to the number of actual "crimes" committed. No deterent-but statistically look s good.

Lisa Sansom

What about identity fraud and other online crimes? Are they increasing? Maybe the "locale" of crimes is just shifting, as many other activities are increasingly taking place online, so are the crimes...

MikeD

since it's referring to violent crime, perhaps the recent changes in many states gun laws that have made fire arms and concealed carry more common have had an influence.

Gary

How consistent and accurate is the analysis and reporting of crime? Surprising results ALWAYS should trigger more than a cursory examination of methods.

Rashida

I have been relating the short crime spike we had a few years back to the crack epidemic of the late 80s and early 90s. I think the children born to those women and men on drugs (or born to any of the many criminals at that time) matured and were at crime age a few years ago. I think some of these children may be locked up or have died by now. This may be a possibility.

gpo

I do like the identity fraud idea posted earlier in the comments. That is possible.

Have we thought at all about the general cheapness of goods. Besides gas and housing things are pretty cheap overall. Even gas isn't that bad considering it was $1.00 in like 1989. Housing too is coming back to reality. I mean I just bought 4 polo shirts yesterday for 9.99 each before my 15% discount. Back in the late 80s I could not get that deal. Health care is expensive.

Automation has made things cheaper as well as competition. Milk was $2.59 on Sunday for a gallon.

Corina Acosta

Is a decline in crime or is it actually a decline in prisoners? Because I am wondering if the number physical people behind bars has diminished due to deaths related to poor conditions and overcrowding of our prisons??

Michael

Jason Kottke (kottke.org) was drawn to the solution of the decline in leaded gasoline, as stated in a section of an article in the WSJ.

Kottke's pull-quote from the article: http://kottke.org/11/05/why-the-crime-decline
The article itself: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304066504576345553135009870.html

It's an interesting theory. Lead can cause an increase in aggressive behavior. It has also been removed from paint and gasoline in the last 40 years. Who knows? Maybe this is the answer. Maybe not.

mark manning

It is so refreshing to read people who actually look for statistically significant relationships rather than relying on "feelings" to explain/justify/vilify certain behaviors. Next to Thomas Sowell, you guys are the best!

Ike

How about estrogen? leeches from plastic and may cause reduced T levels over time in entire populations. How about birth control impacting T levels? I suspect T levels are on the decline, and this drives violent crime in my opinion.

Steve Roth

I'm amazed you didn't see this: unleaded gasoline.

http://www.asymptosis.com/government-gets-the-lead-out-crime-plummets.html

Pretty impressive research. I'd be fascinated to see the two data sets combined somehow.

What percent of the reduction since the 90s was these two effects combined? (It's easy to understand how they could be multiplicative...)

Cañada Kid

I agree with Ryan, that there are many more (and newer) ways of entertainment and similar adrenaline rushes for those who used to be criminals. But what I believe could be a cause is that, given that the only significant data change is the number of criminals behind bars. Could the police and state be trying to save money by giving out more tickets and warnings while jailing fewer persons? What are the costs of being in jail, for the state?