Friday, September 16, 2011

Crime victimization continues to plummet despite economic bust: But why?

Consistent with reports from Uniform Crime Reporting data, the national crime victims survey found crime continues to decline at surprising rates. From the press release:
  • The rate of total violent crime victimizations declined by 13% in 2010, which was about three times the average annual decrease observed from 2001 through 2009 (4%).
  • The decline in the rate of simple assault accounted for about 82% of the total decrease in the rate of violent victimization in 2010.
  • In 2010 the property victimization rate declined by 6%, compared to the average annual decrease of 3% observed from 2001 through 2009.
  • Strangers perpetrated 39% of violent victimizations in 2010, down from 44% in 2001.
  • About 50% of all violent victimizations and nearly 40% of property crimes were reported to the police in 2010. These percentages have remained stable over the past 10 years.
The violent crime reduction, it should be said, is mitigated quite a bit by this caveat from the report:
The number of violent victimizations declined from 4.3 million to 3.8 million from 2009 to 2010, which was a decline of 12%. Simple assault, which accounted for 63% of all violent victimizations, declined by 15%. This decline in simple assault accounted for 83% of the total decrease in violent victimizations. No measurable change occurred in the number of serious violent victimizations from 2009 to 2010. 
Still, long-term trends on violent crime remain both remarkable, and positive:
Since 1993, the violent crime victimization rate declined steadily from 49.9 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 1993 to 14.9 per 1,000 in 2010, a decline of 70% (figure 2). Most of this decline occurred between 1993 and 2001, when the violent crime rate declined by half to reach 25.1 in 2001. The serious violent crime victimization rate followed a similar pattern of decline as the violent crime victimization rate. It declined by 73% since 1993, from 20.5 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older to 5.4 per 1,000. The serious violent crime victimization rate declined by more than half between 1993 and 2000, reaching 10.1 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 2000. It declined by almost half again from 2000 to 2010, reaching 5.4 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older.
Further, property crime declines in the last two decades are nothing short of remarkable: "property crime victimization rate declined 50% from 318.9 per 1,000 households in 1993 to 159.0 per 1,000 households in 2002. It declined further to 120.2 per 1,000 households in 2010."

The decline in crime during the recession, as Doug Berman noted, flies in the face of common (though empirically false) assumptions that unemployment causes crime. Instead, Berman suggests that reduced crime may actually increase unemployment, arguing that " there are fewer so-called 'career criminals' and that in turn means more people out looking for legitimate work.  Add in the reality that, 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, and we may have a (viable?) criminal justice explanation for the modern stubbornness of the US unemployment rate."

I doubt that those elements are a significant factor in boosting unemployment,  certainly not here in Texas where we've closed just one prison unit but cut relatively few jobs (mostly in prisoner healthcare). And career criminals would have already been counted in the long-term unemployment data. Plus, crime was declining during periods of economic growth over the last two decades, so Doug's analysis strike me as a prisoner of the moment. It's certainly true, though, that the crime decline appears to have been unrelated to any economic boom, actually accelerating in the face of the economic downturn. That's remarkable news, for sure. The question is "why?" The best research indicates increased incarceration levels explain only a fraction of the reduction.

Neoconservative criminologist James Q. Wilson published an essay recently analyzing possible reasons for crime declining, concluding that it may stem from "a big improvement in the culture," including reduced cocaine use, hot-spot policing, and potential victims who "have become better at protecting themselves." Environmental factors may even be at play: Wilson cites one researcher who estimated that "reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the nineties" because of lower lead-levels in the blood. For property crimes, I'd add to that list the expanded use of GPS in so many products, which makes cars, phones, laptops, etc., easier to track when they're stolen. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

As mentioned in the comments at Berman's shop, increasingly I've come to believe that the rise of the internet and video games explain a great deal of crime reduction since the mid-'90s, with young males who commit most crime spending more time in front of computer and TV screens than hanging out on the street corner, getting into trouble, etc.. The timeline certainly fits the crime decline nicely. Berman further has suggested that obesity, marijuana use, and addiction to prescription drugs may be "leading relatively crime-prone individual[s] to get so fat or to self-medicate so that they become relatively less crime-prone." Those factors certainly aren't exclusive to sitting in a chair playing video games or surfing the web.

There would likely be some who would dispute Wilson's suggestion that such factors, even if they lead to crime declines, represent "a big improvement in the culture." But it's hard to argue with results.


Anonymous said...

I don't believe crime was ever as bad as we were led to believe. Crime stats are easily manipulated by everyone who has an interest in the outcome, which often are police departments who apply for one government grant or another to increase the size of their force, get shiny new vehicles and officers to drive them, drug sniffing canines, etc., etc., the list goes on virtually forever.

And we know this because just in the past year several law enforcement agencies have had their manipulations come to light. One lied in order to get special funding for his anti-terrorist squad and another was caught exaggerating to get increased funding for drug surveillance in Arizona.

And politicians love a high crime rate. Remember the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994? That was the beginning of the current Police State with over-policing, and other crimes against freedom. You can refresh your memory here as to what all that bill did to the country as well as how crime statistics were manipulated to scare everyone:

TexMac said...

I think a lot of crime goes unreported because people have learned to fear the cops more than criminals. Who wants to call 911 and get tased? Or have your dog shot? These things have happened repeatedly.

Michael Connelly said...

I read one of your responses to one of Doug's usual Cliff Clavins regarding this story and was tempted to respond there until I realized I'd be baiting the Clavins. So I'll point out here what I see to be the problem with the "prison caused a 25% decline in crime" meme that unfortunately gets used without much thought to the points that Wilson and others make. Those models that produced the "25% decline" did not control for many if any of the factors that he and you have cited, plus others, such as the greater effectiveness of psychotropic drugs, the infamous "abortion leads to crime drop," and, my favorite, how violent guys killed and handicapped OTHER VIOLENT GUYS, thereby doing their own crime reduction strategy. Several researchers have pointed to changes in public views of institutions in the same period and to changes in consumer sentiment that track crime rates, IOW, the "cultural" factors again. It's very possible, IOW, that you could implement exactly the same prison buildup policies in other culturally different periods and end up with more or less than "25%" declines. Those models also very tellingly don't model the impact of the higher levels of community sanctions like probation and alternative sentencing that occurred in the same period. Since they also increased as crime decreased, we would predict that there would be the same kind of correlation, just like increased consumption of ice cream in the 20th century correlated well with the increase of diagnosed mental illness. And what if that impact was greater than "25%"? Wouldn't that make the "let's build these prisons" argument look a little less impressive? (We'll leave aside what this failure to study probation impact says about the academic disciplines' and sentencing commissions' ideological support for the conservative crime policies of the last 40 years.)

If the above is the case, then the models haven't "proven" anything about prison buildups and won't until more data and better models fit the other contributors into their calculations and look at the impact of alternatives rather than the prevalent "prison versus nothing" that always gets used. So I appreciate your mentioning these other factors and hope they and their implications for the statistics seep into broader consciousness and policy deliberations. Thanks for the continuing good work.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Excellent comment, Michael, thanks for that!

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:42,

These aren't police stats. They are from a victimization survey. Just saying.:~)

jimbino said...

Democrats have left us with nothing worth stealing or being ransomed for. Not to mention that some of us are now so undernourished we have lost our ability to rape and plunder.

Anonymous said...

Ever notice how anything that happens is explained by drugs. Addiction to drugs leads people to self medicate so they don't commit crimes. The same drugs would be used to explain the RISE in crime if there were one. Remember marijuana? It was supposed to turn people into murderous rapists. Then it was opposed because it made people too gentle and because it made people sterile.
I know I know, Wilson was careful to specify PRESCRIPTION drugs. But wait, SSRIs cause crime.


Anonymous said...

The no snitchin' campaign may have cut back on those who are willing to come forward. Don't be too infatuated with the thugs.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:01, your comments seem to misunderstand the subject of this post. It's not about reported crimes. The data are from a national victimization survey that estimates both reported and unreported crimes. In fact, comparing this survey to reported crime is how unreported crime is calculated.

Anonymous said...

Should we consider the effect of government support (pretty generous SS housing, food stamps, medical care, etc.) that is offered to x cons, unwed mothers, and to other needy people? Crime is always lower in the countries that have strong public/community support for the unemployed (see Canada & the Netherlands). Also, divert courts and treatment requirements, and 2nd chance/parole violators "safe p" (?) institutions [I can't remember the name] are surely having a good influence on criminal behavior.

DEWEY said...

Was it taken into consideration the we, as a population, are getting older ans saying "I'm getting too old to do this sh** !!"

Anonymous said...

Check this out:

Are Prisons Obsolete?
by Angela Davis

Seven Stories Press Open Media Series, April 2003, Paperback

In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Professor Davis seeks to illustrate that the time for the prison is approaching an end. She argues forthrightly for "decarceration", and argues for the transformation of the society as a whole.

Praise for Are Prisons Obsolete?

"In this extraordinary book, Angela Davis challenges us to confront the human rights catastrophe in our jails and prisons. As she so convincingly argues, the contemporary U.S. practice of super-incarceration is closer to new age slavery than to any recognizable system of 'criminal justice'."--Mike Davis, author of Dead Cities and City of Quartz

"In this brilliant, thoroughly researched book, Angela Davis swings a wrecking ball into the racist and sexist underpinnings of the American prison system.

Denny Crane said...

I think it is due to cell phones! Everyone has a cell phone and they are occupied with facebook, youtube or texting! Also if you are a victim and have a cell phone you can video tape everything and put it on youtube or show it to the police.
I also agree with the comment about self medicating. Seems like the younger kids are all on Aderal to help with ADHD and smoking pot. Keeps them out of trouble.