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Crime Continues to Decline Though Uncertainty Remains As to Why

by Brad R. Schlesinger, published

Last week the FBI released its preliminary crime statistics for the first six months of 2011. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) figures show that “law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation reported a decrease of 6.4 percent in the number of violent crimes... for the first 6 months of 2011 when compared with figures reported for the same time in 2010.” And “property crimes in the United States from January to June of 2011 decreased 3.7 percent when compared with data from the same time period in 2010.” The UCR is compiled based on the number of reported crimes voluntarily turned over to the FBI by law enforcement agencies from all over the country.

The amount of crime has been declining ever since the early 1990’s (see chart above) when crime was at its highest levels in the last thirty years. But since then, crime has decreased significantly. While criticisms exist over the accuracy and data collection methods of the UCR -- particularly variations in the way local police report and classify crime -- the National Crime Victimization Survey, an alternative source for crime statistics, shows similar trends of crime continuing to fall.

Despite the fact that crime continues to decrease, there isn’t any really good answer to explain the drop or what the cause may be. Conventional wisdom typically holds that the health of the economy and the level of unemployment serve as an accurate indicator of the level of crime. However, this continued decrease in crime we’re seeing is occurring in the midst of elongated economic turbulence and sky-high unemployment rates.

In fact, it might be possible that reductions in crime are leading to more unemployment – turning the conventional wisdom regarding crime and the economy on its head. Law professor Douglas A. Berman posits that “crime data surely suggests that there are fewer so-called 'career criminals' and that in turn means more people out looking for legitimate work.”  In addition, “partially due to less crime, in recent years fewer persons are being sent to prison and thus fewer persons are hired to build and work inside prisons...”

As it stands, criminologists and experts alike remain mystified as to the answer, though that hasn’t stopped many from hypothesizing.

Tough on crime and law and order advocates are quick to point to the ever-increasing incarceration rate as the reason behind the drop in crime. Undoubtedly, this has had some effect. But even though the number of people imprisoned has increased 350 percent in the last forty years, research shows that the boom in the total number of incarcerated persons can only explain about 25 percent of the decline in crime -- leaving the other three-quarter drop unaccounted for. The steady climb in the number of people imprisoned is likely due to legislation -- three strikes laws, mandatory-minimums, and the pervasive eradication of parole -- that increased prison terms for sentenced offenders, rather than crime rates.

Other competing theories exist as well. Some point to more targeted and community-oriented policing strategies adopted by law enforcement agencies, the decline of crack-cocaine in the early 90’s, more lax gun control laws, reduced levels of lead in gasoline and paint, as well as legalized abortion and widespread access to family planning services. However, it is unclear as to the extent to which these theories explain the significant, long-term reduction in crime.

When thinking about the possible explanations for the decrease in crime, it’s important to note that young people commit most crime. In 2010, UCR data shows that 38.8 percent of all arrests were of people aged 15-24. And that number grows to 53.6 percent when including 25-29 year olds. Essentially, over half of those arrested in 2010 were under 30 years of age. All of this leads me to believe that a major reason behind the continual downward trend in crime may have more to do with the modern technological and medical advancements of the last 15-20 years, as well as the increased buying power of the American consumer.

The amount of technology available to young people today compared to say 20 years ago is astounding. From video game systems, to cell-phones, high-definition televisions, and the prevalence of the Internet, young people have significantly more distractions than ever. The hours that kids slave over mastering video games, watching TV, playing with cell phones, iPads, and surfing the Internet is time spent indoors, not outside where crime and offending occur.

These technological advances may further help explain reductions in crime, as those with criminal or deviant tendencies can channel them elsewhere. Someone prone to committing violence against others might be able to achieve catharsis through violent video games or watching violent movies. Instead of actually assaulting or robbing someone on the street, video games like Grand Theft Auto and other first person shooting games allow potential criminals to direct their violent tendencies towards beating up, shooting, and killing a character in a video game rather than in real life.

The same is theorized for people with potentially violent sexual impulses as well. The sheer amount and different kinds of pornography available on the Internet is probably impossible to quantify. Individuals with sexually deviant and criminal desires may be able to achieve a cathartic release by seeking out the kind of niche pornography that can help them satisfy their urges in a non-violent manner. Instead of sexually assaulting someone, the Internet can provide a would-be criminal with such sexual inclinations the access to a bevy of S&M, rape fantasy, and sexually violent and control-oriented pornography websites.

Modern medicine and the increasing availability of drugs like marijuana might also partly explain the drop in crime. An increase in marijuana use amongst high school students has coincided with the current trend of declining crime. And marijuana can hardly be considered a drug the simple use of which is associated with violence and crime.

Moreover, as modern medicine advances, doctors might be better equipped to diagnose and treat those children more prone to criminal behavior. There is also a surge in the number of young people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Young people treated for ADHD typically receive medication that makes them more docile, while also reducing “spontaneous tendencies, sometimes completely inhibiting them,” that without the medication could possibly lead to criminal activity and offending.

Finally, the decrease in the amount of property crime may be attributable to the greater buying power of the American consumer over the last 15-20 years. Technological innovation has led to the mass production of cheap and widely available consumable goods such as microwaves, televisions, DVD players, refrigerators, cell phones, and computers. The cheapness and common availability of these products makes their re-sale value relatively worthless, so stealing and re-selling them isn’t likely to net much monetary return.

Even those households considered to be in poverty are able to readily obtain these goods, which certainly increase individual quality of life. Data shows that 92 percent of poor households have a microwave, 81 percent have air conditioning, 65 percent a DVD player, 63 percent cable or satellite TV, 53 percent own a video game system, 50 percent a personal computer, and 42 percent have Internet service.

The prevalence of these amenities, even in those homes considered to be poor, shows just how inexpensive and easily obtainable these goods are becoming. It would seem that even a legitimate job paying the lowest of wages allows for individuals to afford these items -- altering the risk versus reward calculus for someone considering offending. Rather than risk the possibility of arrest or prison, which can irreparably harm legitimate job prospects in the future, those individuals not already repeat or chronic offenders might eschew crime as a means to obtain these products – viewing their current lawful employment or the prospects thereof, a far more reasonable and less risky way to afford these things.

While attempts at understanding the causes behind this long-term reduction in crime are an inexact science, it won’t stop those studying the trend from looking for answers. For now, we should just be happy that crime is on the decline and that our society is becoming less violent. Whatever the reasons, I doubt anyone can argue with that.

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