In December 2008, just a few months after the
Except, as it turns out, the exact opposite occurred. According to FBI statistics, crime rates went down across the board in 2009. Way down. Murder, rape, robbery, assault, auto theft—plummeted, one and all. Then, this week, the FBI released preliminary data for the first six months of 2010, and again the same pattern emerged. Violent crimes and property crimes alike have been falling in every region of the country. What gives? Have experts just completely misunderstood what causes people to commit crimes?
There's certainly no shortage of theories for why crime rates have gone down over the past two years. The simplest is that crime just isn’t closely related to economic conditions. Consider, after all, the two big crime epidemics in the twentieth century—the first took root in the late 1960s, during a period of healthy growth; the other came during the economic doldrums of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The only constant here, it seems, is that both outbreaks were fueled by a major expansion of drug markets: heroin in the 1970s, crack in the 1990s. (The current recession has seen a surge in demand for prescription drugs like Oxycontin or Xanax, but, for a variety of reasons, those illicit markets aren’t associated with the same levels of violence.)
Many conservatives like this storyline. Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Heather MacDonald noted that the recession “has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice.” What this recession proves, MacDonald argued, is that we needn’t worry about alleviating poverty to fight crime. As long as cities continue practicing savvy policing (such as deploying foot patrols to high-crime areas, a technique pioneered by William Bratton in New York in the 1990s) and locking people up for long periods of time, crime will keep dropping. Conservatives, you see, were right all along.
But not everyone’s quite ready to sever the link between economic conditions and crime. Richard Rosenfeld is a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and was one of those experts predicting a recession-driven crime tsunami. He notes that the past two years have come as a total surprise, but wonders if there might be a more subtle explanation at play. Many of the earlier crime-ridden recessions, he points out, have been accompanied by healthy bouts of inflation. When prices are rising fast, the demand for black-market goods goes up, which increases the incentive to steal stuff that you can resell to underground street markets. So it might well be inflation that causes crime. These past two years, by contrast, we’ve been in a near-deflationary period. (It’s worth noting that the Great Depression—another deflationary period—saw crime go way down, as well.)
The inflation hypothesis is an intriguing twist on an old debate. One problem in resolving this question, however, is that very few economists actually study the connection between economic conditions and crime. And so, Rosenfeld notes, it’s left to criminologists—many of whom lack proper economic training—to try to tease out the intricate relationships.
One economist who has tried to scrutinize the connection is Bruce Weinberg of
Another expert who would take this analysis even further is Marcus Felson of
Felson’s broader argument is that subtle changes in our social and economic environments can actually have big effects on crime rates. If, say, GM suddenly invents a better lock for its cars, auto theft goes down. If a city enforces existing liquor laws at its five worst bars (so that they’re not serving alcohol to people who are already intoxicated, for instance), violence drops. If people start trimming their hedges and watching out for their neighbors, burglaries dwindle. And the would-be criminals don’t just go elsewhere for looting or pillaging—they give up, and the overall crime rate drops. These ideas aren’t classically conservative (“lock ‘em all up!”) or liberal (“rehabilitate ‘em and address root causes”). But they’re finding favor among a younger class of criminologists—and some of the behavioral shifts triggered by this recession could provide a testing ground for such theories.
That said, the next few years could complicate the picture even further. After all, many experts think crime could yet tick up again—especially if the unemployment rate among young men keeps climbing. And others, like
Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor for The