Preliminary figures indicate that, as a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation reported a decrease of 6.4 percent in the number of violent crimes brought to their attention for the first 6 months of 2011 when compared with figures reported for the same time in 2010. The violent crime category includes murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The number of 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. Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.Here's a table including Texas cities over 100,000 people comparing reported crime rates for the first six months of 2010 and 2011. Notably, a few towns where murders had virtually bottomed out saw significant year-to-year increases, including Amarillo (3-8), Arlington (6-12), Beaumont (3-7), and El Paso (1-14). But overall murders declined because of offsetting reductions in other jurisdictions, particularly Houston (143-90) and Fort Worth (32-18), along with more modest declines in most other places.
Grits believes the answer lies in a confluence of several possible reasons. First, it must be acknowledged, the best econometric estimates (Spelman, Levitt) say around one-quarter to a third of crime reduction in the '90s came from locking up more criminals for longer stretches, which makes sense given the vast scope of expanded incapacitation. But those same models showed incarceration levels had long since passed the point of maximizing marginal utility (in the economists' jargon). Based purely on a cost-benefit equation, wrote Spelman, "Enormous cutbacks - reductions of 50% or more in the prison population - are not difficult to justify and would probably save the US public billions of dollars each year. Certainly there is little economic justification for continuing to build."
So those who argue most strongly for the effectiveness of incarceration at reducing crime say we've already gone to that well too often. And anyway, in Texas crime continued to decline even after we stopped building new prisons. Incarcerating ever-more people can't be the only factor. So the question remains, if expanded imprisonment accounted for a quarter to a third of the '90s crime decline, what accounted for the rest, and why does crime keep falling now that incarceration (even in Texas) has leveled off?
Our friends at the Texas Legislature might suggest that new probation and parole programming effectively reduced incarceration levels without harming public safety, and because I supported them, I'd love to give the 2007 reforms credit. But the trend is national, not Texas-specific, so even if that had a positive effect, it can't explain it all.
My own favorite theory: Young people spend a great deal of time engaged with technology like the internet, video games and cell phones that didn't exist 25 years ago. These activities occupy time of teens and young adults who are the most likely to commit crimes. The kid perfecting his skills at Grand Theft Auto V may not be preparing himself for the job market, but he isn't out stealing my car.
On property crimes, there's an hypothesis that the rise of cheap, mass-market goods has contributed to reducing theft because lots of things we own have relatively low resale value and simply aren't worth stealing anymore. The list of items most often stolen bears out that trend, consisting mainly of things that aren't cheaply produced or where brand value trumps utility among callow minds.
Some theorize that improved pharmacology reduced crime, both thanks to improved antipsychotic and anti-depression drugs for adults and potentially because of earlier diagnosis and more frequent medication of mental illness among juveniles. At a gut level, Grits remains skeptical of that explanation, but there's inarguably a time correlation.
James Q. Wilson has cited research to argue 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.
Professor Steven Levitt, co-author of the book Freakonomics, has provocatively argued (to paraphrase) that legalization of abortion and expanded access to family planning services during the 1970s reduced crime in the 1990s by enhancing women's control over their reproductive cycle and thus reducing the number of unplanned, unwanted children coming of age in that period.
Our friends at the NRA might suggest that the expansion of "concealed carry" laws to three dozen states contributed to deterrence, though that explanation fails to explain parallel declines in the other states and Canada, and Grits doesn't believe the practice is widespread enough to explain the observed crime decline.
Similarly, for Texas and other states with significant Latin American immigration, legal and otherwise, immigrants tend to commit crimes at much lower rates than US citizens and their out-sized presence could explain lower crime rates. But just as with concealed carry laws, that explanation doesn't account for (larger) crime drops in New York and other parts of the country that didn't see the same immigration wave. (Notice the theme: For several of these it's difficult if not impossible to link correlation and causation.)
In Texas (Grits can't speak for elsewhere), one seldom discussed factor may be the evolving makeup, culture and revenue streams of criminal gangs. Historically, conventional wisdom held that criminal street gangs primarily sought to nail down turf in their hometown for retail drug sales and sometimes extortion, tagging neighborhoods to mark their territory, etc.. But in Texas today the most important gangs are prison-affiliated organizations, some of which have become arms of transnational drug smuggling cartels out of Mexico, sometimes even working as paid assassins south of the border. Their focus is less on controlling a piece of turf in a Texas town so much as maintaining a transit corridor through which drugs may be smuggled to the rest of the country. They're still dangerous criminals but the focus of their business (and often, their violence) has changed along with the sources of prohibition-driven profits.
Finally, there are usually a few, typically anonymous zealots/trolls who show up whenever FBI crime data are reported to claim that they far understate actual crime, much of which, the argument goes, remains forever unreported. (Often this absurd construction attributes unreported crime to the success of the "stop snitching" meme.) But Grits believes those arguments are debunked by essentially similar trends demonstrated in national crime victimization surveys, which also show crime declining. I'm willing to believe numbers are juked in some jurisdictions, but that's something that must be demonstrated, not merely alleged.
Why do you believe crime is declining? Are the reasons related to things the justice system is or isn't doing, or something else entirely? And even if the answer is "something else entirely," is that something that government can double down on to reduce crime, or simply a happy, random accident that cannot be intentionally replicated? Your guess is as good as mine, so what's yours?
H/T: Sentencing Law & Policy