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Despite recession, crime keeps falling

Monday, December 21, 2009 | 4:52 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON — High unemployment. More people on food stamps. Fewer owning their homes. Yet for all these signs of recession, something is missing: More crime.

Experts are scratching their heads over why crime has ebbed so far during this recession, making it different from other economic downturns of the past half-century. Early guesses include jobless people at home keeping closer watch for thieves, or the American population just getting older — and older people commit fewer crimes.

Preliminary FBI crime figures for the first half of 2009 show crime falling across the country, even at a time of high unemployment, foreclosures and layoffs. Most surprisingly, murder and manslaughter fell 10 percent for the first half of the year.

"That's a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions," said Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied crime trends.

Rosenfeld said he did not expect the 10 percent drop in killings to be sustained over the entire year, as more data is reported. But he said the broad declines are exceptional, given that past recessions stretching back to the 1950s have boosted crime rates.

Property crimes, in particular, were expected to rise.

They haven't.

Overall, property crimes fell by 6.1 percent and violent crimes by 4.4 percent, according to the six-month data collected by the FBI. Crime rates haven't been this low since the 1960s, and are nowhere near the peak reached in the early 1990s.

Rosenfeld said there are several possible explanations, including that extended unemployment benefits, food stamps and other government-driven economic stimulus "have cushioned and delayed for many people the big blows that come from a recession."

Those benefits will have to run out eventually, he cautioned.

Another possible factor is that with more people home from work, it is harder for burglars to break into a home or apartment unnoticed by neighbors, he said. Rosenfeld said another possibility is that because big cities tend to have a large impact on national crime figures, those cities' technology-driven, "smart policing" efforts are driving down national rates.

The new figures show car thefts also dropped significantly, falling nearly 19 percent and continuing a sharp downward trend in that category. Some believe that big drop in car theft is due largely to the security locking systems installed on most models, as well as more high-tech deterrents such as car recovery devices that use the Global Positioning System.

James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said he was not surprised by the overall downward trends.

"The popular wisdom is wrong," said Fox. "If a law-abiding citizen loses their job, they don't typically go on a crime spree."

Fox argued the decline is partly due to the graying of America. As the over-50 population grows, he said, crime goes down, even while other social costs, such as health care, go up.

Like Rosenfeld, Fox also doubted that big changes — such as a 10 percent drop in murders — are sustainable.

"We shouldn't celebrate too loudly," he said, arguing that it may be a statistical fluke, but one which can also generate complacency on the part of public officials.

"You don't solve the crime problem, you only control it," he said.

The figures are based on data supplied to the FBI by more than 11,700 police and law enforcement agencies. They compare reported crimes in the first six months of this year to the first six months of last year. Separate statistics compiled by the Justice Department measure both reported and unreported crimes.

The early 2009 data suggests the crime-dropping trend of 2008 is not just continuing but accelerating. In 2008, the same data showed a nearly 4 percent drop in murder and manslaughter and an overall drop in violent crime of 1.9 percent from 2007 to 2008.

According to the FBI figures, reports of violent crime fell about 7 percent in cities with 1 million or more people, but in towns with 10,000 to 25,000 people, violent crime ticked up slightly by 1.7 percent.

Each city's data was different but collectively pointed to less crime in every major category.

Nationwide, rape fell by 3.3 percent and robbery by 6.5 percent. Arsons, which are subject to a variety of reporting standards, declined more than 8 percent.

The FBI's data for New York City shows 204 reported murders in the first half of 2009, compared to 252 in same period last year. By comparison, Oklahoma City saw reported killings increase from 26 to 32, the FBI said. Phoenix saw 10 fewer killings, dropping from 86 in the first half of 2008 to 76 in the first half of this year, according to the data.


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