Of course everyone from the “tough on crime” proponents to community organizers to those with the latest scientific method for rehabilitation are claiming credit.
Time Magazine sums it up this way:
“There’s a catch, though. No one can convincingly explain exactly how the crime problem was solved. Police chiefs around the country credit improved police work. Demographers cite changing demographics of an aging population. Some theorists point to the evolution of the drug trade at both the wholesale and retail levels, while for veterans of the Clinton Administration, the preferred explanation is their initiative to hire more cops. Renegade economist Steven Levitt has speculated that legalized abortion caused the drop in crime. (Fewer unwanted babies in the 1970s and ’80s grew up to be thugs in the 1990s and beyond.)
The truth probably lies in a mix of these factors, plus one more: the steep rise in the number of Americans in prison. As local, state and federal governments face an era of diminished resources, they will need a better understanding of how and why crime rates tumbled. A sour economy need not mean a return to lawless streets, but continued success in fighting crime will require more brains, especially in those neighborhoods where violence is still rampant and public safety is a tattered dream.
The Lockup Factor
In his book Why Crime Rates Fell, Tufts University sociologist John Conklin concluded that up to half of the improvement was due to a single factor: more people in prison. The U.S. prison population grew by more than half a million during the 1990s and continued to grow, although more slowly, in the next decade. Go back half a century: as sentencing became more lenient in the 1960s and ’70s, the crime rate started to rise. When lawmakers responded to the crime wave by building prisons and mandating tough sentences, the number of prisoners increased and the number of crimes fell.”
Steven Levitt, cited in the Time article above, wrote in his “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s” published in 2004 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that there are six things that do NOT contribute: 1) the strong economy of the 90s; 2) changing demographics (i.e. aging population); 3) better policing strategies; 4) gun control laws; 5) laws allowing the carrying of concealed weapons; 6) increased use of capital punishment.
According to Levitt, although better policing strategies does not contribute to the decline (“Strategies” includes Rudy Giuliani’s clearing out of panhandlers in New York City and the return of beat cops to neighborhoods elsewhere) the number of cops does contribute. Interesting.
His idea that legalized abortion has contributed to the decrease is certainly provocative and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about that in the future as the debate continues.
Here’s an interesting fact: while the national rate has dropped considerably, the rate in mid-sized cities has gone up. For instance it’s risen in Buffalo , which is probably typical for cities of that size.
Something else: the rate at which homicide is dropping is about the same as it was rising back in the 60s and 70s. (Check the image above from Levitt’s book.) It’s just going in the other direction. Eventually it’ll be back where it was. Maybe we should be looking at what was going on at that time to see why it rose. Conklin says it was the lenient sentencing back then, but that was also the time when the demographics would be changing: the baby boomers were young and at the age where people tend to commit crimes if they are so inclined. Now they’re old and no longer at that stage.
I’m wondering if we’re casting our net far enough to find an answer. For instance, could it be Singularity’s effect? Are we becoming more and more connected? Knowledge comes in thick and fast and we’re more aware of each other as human beings than we were before. Maybe we finally feel each other’s pain.
The Singularity or our rampant ramp up of technology and instant communication may be homogenizing the human race. Maybe this in turn eradicates hate crime. And in essence every crime is a crime of hate.
Regardless of how you feel about brain uploads and nanobots circulating in your blood, the Singularity effect may be a good thing.