Across the country, authorities are becoming concerned that the nation's financial woes could turn increasingly violent, and they are urging people to get help. In some places, mental-health hot lines are jammed, counseling services are in high demand and domestic-violence shelters are full.These are crimes of a pitiful variety and the examples offered are heartwrenching:
"I've had a number of people say that this is the thing most reminiscent of 9/11 that's happened here since then," said the Rev. Canon Ann Malonee, vicar at Trinity Church in the heart of New York's financial district. "It's that sense of having the rug pulled out from under them."
With nowhere else to turn, many people are calling suicide-prevention hot lines. The Samaritans of New York have seen calls rise more than 16% in the past year, many of them money-related. The Switchboard of Miami has recorded more than 500 foreclosure-related calls this year.
"A lot of people are telling us they are losing everything. They're losing their homes, they're going into foreclosure, they've lost their jobs," said Virginia Cervasio, executive director of a suicide resource enter in southwest Florida's Lee County.
My purpose here is to identify which particular offenses we should expect to increase during an economic decline instead of feeding into the common theme that a tanking economy will automatically lead to an unstoppable crime spree. Some have already resorted to blatant scare tactics: A Canadian paper, the Edmonton Sun, for example, told readers that "if the economy goes into a tailspin, Edmontonians should brace for a boom in street violence, drug addiction and homicides, according to a University of Alberta criminologist." That's virtually unadulterated scaremongering with little research-based support.An out-of-work money manager in California loses a fortune and wipes out his family in a murder-suicide. A 90-year-old Ohio widow shoots herself in the chest as authorities arrive to evict her from the modest house she called home for 38 years.
In Massachusetts, a housewife who had hidden her family's mounting financial crisis from her husband sends a note to the mortgage company warning: "By the time you foreclose on my house, I'll be dead."
Then Carlene Balderrama shot herself to death, leaving an insurance policy and a suicide note on a table.
Equally important is to figure out the proper response in each case, and with prisons utterly full, that can't just be jacking up penalties. Theft of copper and other industrial metals soared, for example, after legislation approved in 2007 increased the penalty in Texas to a felony for stealing metal to sell for scrap. That's precisely one of those crimes which appears governed by economic circumstances rather than fear of punishment, and reducing it requires more creative solutions like undercover operations targeting scrap metal dealers.
Similarly, family violence and suicide aren't the types of offenses that respond well to boosted punishments. Instead, in both instances, prevention, rapid response during a crisis and access to mental health services are keys to identifying and reducing unstable behaviors. Being "smart on crime" isn't just a luxury for the good times, it may be even more important when economic times are bad.