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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.


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.