What Does the Crime Decrease Mean?

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The Times has a long piece on crime in New York City today, noting that Mayor Mike Bloomberg is pushing to take credit for the massive—and mostly mysterious—20 percent drop in citywide crime since 2001, a decline that has outpaced the rest of the nation. Only towards the end does the piece give a sense that no one really knows why crime has been declining. A few years ago, Andrew Karmen wrote an important book on the decrease in New York City’s homicide rate during the 1990s, arguing that neither more effective police measures, nor greater incarceration rates, nor economic development had a decisive effect on crime rates. (Nor was it due to the bold, manly resolve of Rudy Giuliani; see Stephanie Mencimer’s review for a summary.) Karmen ended up pointing to four possible explanations: better education, an influx of immigrants (who commit less crime), demographics (criminals getting older), and death (criminals dying out).

Case closed? Not quite. It’s not clear that these four factors applied to, for instance, San Diego or Washington D.C., two other cities that saw a jaw-dropping decrease in homicides during the 1990s. (San Diego tends to get feted often by liberals, who point to its success with community policing.) Nor is it clear that the New York City factors can be extrapolated nationwide. For that, you have Steve Leavitt famously arguing that legalized abortion caused the national crime drop—by leading to fewer unwanted pregnancies, and hence the depletion of a demographic at greater risk of growing up and committing crimes—although his theory isn’t, as far as I know, entirely conclusive. Basically, no one really knows what makes crime go away, and the safe, namby-pamby answer is that it seems like you need a whole confluence of factors to cause a decrease; none of which can necessarily trace back to one mayor or set of urban policies. No one will hire me to write campaign slogans for a mayoral race, but there you go.

On the other hand, the widespread drop in the crime rate does mean two important things, politically. First, crime as an issue, both in urban areas and nationally, has been plummeting lately. A Pew poll way back in January showed that “crime” basically dropped off the map dramatically as a political issue after 9/11, which didn’t really spell the death of “law and order” Republicans nationwide—see Jerry Kilgore’s campaign in Virginia for an example—but somewhat lessened their influence, which, I think, can only be a good thing. (Indeed, among conservatives, Harriet Miers’ bleeding heart views on criminal justice seem to be the least offensive thing about her.)

More to the point, it can potentially help rally public support around sensible measures to roll back the prison-industrial complex in this country—a complex that has played at most a supporting role in the great crime drop of the 1990s, but brings fairly obvious budgetary and societal costs. Especially with state budget crunches, there’s some evidence that voters have had enough. Here in California, opposition to the “Three Strikes” rule nearly passed last fall until Schwarzenegger unleashed his multi-million dollar crusade against Prop. 66. Still, the vote was close. My preferred idea would be to start with parole reform, since, according to a 2002 Justice Department study, of the 51.8 percent of ex-convicts returned to prison, more than half (26.8 percent) are sent back not for committing a new crime, but for violating conditions of their parole (many of which are mere technical violations). That shit ain’t right, and the happy part here is that it’s not at all impossible to fix some of the most senseless aspects of parole. But one should note that the national homicide rate could just as mysteriously start ticking up again sometime in the near future, provoking an irrational public to support ineffectual “tough on crime” policies once again, so the time to change things is really right now.

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