The good news about crime is that not only has it declined by more than 50% in the last two decades, but notwithstanding a slowing in the rate of decline from year to year, the overall trends keep going down. The latest national estimate published by the FBI for 2013 shows a drop of 4.4% in violent crime from 2012, which translates into a twenty-year drop of more than fifty percent. The decline in cities like New York and Los Angeles is even more dramatic, with reductions in violent crime, particularly homicide, of more than 70 percent.
Trying to figure out the reasons for this decline has spawned a veritable cottage industry engaging scholars from every relevant academic field. Out of this handiwork has emerged 16 theories considered by the research community to have some degree of validity, and now for the first time a study has been published by the Brennan Center which attempts to determine the relative degree to which each theory can be used to explain the crime decline as a whole. Unfortunately, what the Brennan report shows is that none of the theories appears to explain anything more than a marginal change in serious crime, and the factor that has been cited most consistently for its positive impact on crime over the past twenty years – incarceration – may actually have the reverse effect.
According to the Brennan researchers, the positive correlation between rates of incarceration and rates of violent crime probably ended around 2000, with the continued growth of the prison population having no effect on crime rates at all. This is confirmed by looking at states in which the size of the prison population has declined, but violent crime rates have continued to go down. The result is what Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz calls “not only inhumane, it is an economic folly.”
The other major issue examined by Brennan is the use of CompStat and other digital, data-driven policing methods that first started in New York and appear to be responsible for a 5 to 15 percent crime decrease in cities where it has been deployed. The problem with this finding, however, is that crime also declined more or less to the same degree in cities that didn’t adopt CompStat, and in cities that did adopt the CompStat system, the most significant declines in crime rates took place before it was deployed, or occurred simultaneously with significant ( and costly) increases in the number of police.
The real problem with the whole school of American crime-decline is that the phenomenon is hardly unique to America at all. Crime in England has dropped by almost 50% in the last twenty years, ditto in the European Union, where the drop in crime over the last ten years is almost the same as in the United States. And Europe has neither increased its incarceration rates nor jumped on the Compstat bandwagon as is the case in many cities throughout the US. It should also be mentioned that Europe has not experienced anywhere near the degree of economic recovery that has occurred here since 2008, yet crime rates everywhere in the EU continue to fall.
In all of the research on crime that is summarized by Brennan, one great omission stands out. According to the FBI, violent crimes fell from 1,857,670 in 1994 to 1,214,464 in 2012, and over that same period, serious property crimes dropped from 12,131,873 to 8,975,438. Which means that over this period of time, 3,798,846 serious crimes were not committed because crime rates kept going down. If Brennan is correct and incarceration accounted for a 5%-7% decline in crime, then somewhere around 200,000 of these crimes weren’t committed because the people who otherwise might have committed these crimes were in jail. But this means that several million would-be perpetrators chose a different path. With all due respect to theories about policing, abortions, CCW, lead paint and all the rest, shouldn’t we figure out a way to talk to them?