Crime Rates Are Down – But Why?

by Diane Dimond on March 11, 2013

Down: Crimes like Murder, Rape and Burglary

If you follow the news you’ve heard that violent crime rates are down all across the country.

I know it is hard to believe after news of mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado and the current murder spree in Chicago but facts are facts. The instances of crime have been slowly and surely declining for the last two decades.

Back in 1994, a Gallup survey found that more than 50% of Americans cited crime as the nation’s biggest problem. In another Gallup survey conducted last year that number was down to just 2%. I keep wondering why? What caused the rate of murder, rape, armed robbery and other violence-inspired crimes to plummet so dramatically? Did we just get lucky or is there a specific reason (or reasons) for the improvement?

Record Numbers of U.S. Prisoners

Opinions are as varied as the number of criminologists and scholars researching the issue. The theories range from the conventional to the controversial. Most criminologists agree on a group of factors that caused the decline.

• The U.S. incarceration rate is among the highest in the world. Plainly put, we have taken record numbers of criminals off the street.

• The increased number of police on the beat and pro-active policing. Bottom line, it is now harder to commit a crime. Citizens are more alert these days and their calls to 911 bring immediate help. Also, surveillance cameras are everywhere and they are believed to be a real deterrent.

• The “graying of America.” Young people commit most of the crime and the U.S population has gotten progressively older.

Give Youth A Place to Belong

• There are now many more social programs for youth which help keep young people occupied and focused on positive goals.

• The government’s stepped-up aid programs — such as unemployment, food stamps and rent controlled housing – means recipients are less likely to turn to financial or stress-motivated crime.

But there are lots of other theories from learned sources about why America continues to experience a drop in violent crime. Some might seem far-fetched to you, others may be hard to swallow.

Rick Nevin , a Virginia economist who consults with the National Center for Healthy Housing (among other studious pursuits) maintains that the decline in crime can be traced to the U.S. ban on lead in gasoline and house paints. In a series of graphs he demonstrates how the drop in the crime rate coincides perfectly with the coming-of-age of the first generation protected from lead exposure. The theory has not been widely researched because how do you study a group that has not been exposed to something? But, lead has long been associated with violent behavior and Nevin insists his research proves a link between the lead ban and a drop in crime not only here in the U.S. but in nine other countries as well.

Richard Rosenfeld, the former president of the American Society of Criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis also cites the decline in opportunities for criminal behavior. He told reporters a while back that, “During severe recessions like the current one, with chronically high unemployment rates, more people are at home and can act as guardians for their home.” That translates into fewer home burglaries and property crimes. Rosenfeld also says the poor economy has left people with less cash and valuables, making criminals less likely to target them for robbery or theft.

Some ardent NRA and other gun owners say the decline has occurred because so many Americans have chosen to arm themselves and have, therefore, created safer streets and homesteads. Anti-gun proponents point to the increase in the number of gun laws as being the reason violent crimes are on the downswing. There are no firm statistics to back up either theory.


That’s the NRA’s Disputed Stand

Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago offers what is probably the most controversial hypothesis for the two-decade long decrease in violent crimes. Levitt believes that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion in January 1973 has had more to do with the drop in crime than any other factor. I have to admit, I winced when I read that. So I kept reading to learn more about his theory.

Levitt and co-author John Donohue published a controversial paper that highlighted the year 1992 when crime in the U.S. first started to inch downward. They noted that it was a full 18 years after the high court’s historic decision on Rowe vs. Wade. Levitt and Donohue theorize that the legalization of abortion resulted in fewer unwanted children who would have gone on to commit youthful violent crimes.

Abortion Protest at the US Supreme Court

The pair studied the states that had been the earliest adopters of legalized abortion – Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, Oregon and Washington State – and found that those locations began to experience steep drops in the violent crime rate 18 years later. They also found that those states with the highest abortion rates experienced the greatest reduction in crime. So to the question, “What is responsible for the reduction in crime in the United States?” Clearly, it’s some sort of a combination of the various theories floating around. So take your pick. Please, make a pick because if Gallup survey numbers hold and only 2 % of Americans continue to see crime as a problem, we’re in trouble. Our complacency could easily allow crime rates to inch back up again carrying with it all manner of human suffering. home

Diane Dimond March 11, 2013 at 8:36 am

Creators Syndicate Reader PartsMom writes:

“So what is happening in California? My downtown small business was broken into three times in the past year–the first ever, after many years in our location. My home has also had two attempts at break-ins as well, and I had a daylight shoplifting incident a couple of weeks ago, and a purse and a bookbag were taken out of my car in separate incidents–when I was practically on the spot. One of them was caught on a survellance camera, identified by a store manager, and nothing has happened. Our local police response time is horrible; they blame budget cuts. (Ever notice that government budget cuts are always made in the most critical places aiming for max public outrage?)

chiguy (no affiliation:) March 12, 2013 at 7:52 pm

As you inferred , the “crime” rate drop in the last 20+ years is due to a multitude of factors (better policing strategies, harsher penalties, more community involvement and intervention efforts, after school programs, etc.)

Picking a specific categorical trend – especially one’s that seem to have no tertiary relation to crime, as some of the researchers have posited – seems rather myopic. It may be a tidy way to complete a thesis/study but, not when it pertains to such a complex issue .

And, despite this good news, the U.S. still has more “crime” per capita than many other western democracies. So we still have a ways to go as a “civilized” society.

Interesting semi-related article below from last year:

[p.s .- Sorry to hear of the loss of your NPR colleague. My condolences to you and her family]

Diane Dimond March 13, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Facebook Friend Stacy Brown writes:

“Very thought provoking topic. Usually, when the economy is bad there is more crime. There are also various ways in which the FBI and then local authorities measure crime rates as well. No matter how we look at this, though, it is good news when you can say that crime- particularly violent crime- has fallen.”

Diane Dimond March 13, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Facebook Friends Ronald Jeffries Tallman writes:

“Better crime fighting-awareness by public and also forensic sciences which help catch and keep habituals off the streets. Better communication methods and devices such as cell phones/gps pinpoint locations and make direct immediate contact to others. I’m familiar with 1978 lead base removal, ect… and say no on that one and also on the personal choices people may make.”

Diane Dimond March 13, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Twitter Pal kimmiegirl2010 writes:

“@DiDimond Not so sure about crime rate. Doesn’t seem to be down to me. But due to abortion?!? Ludicrous!”

Diane Dimond March 14, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Noozhawk Santa Barbara Reader Really? writes:

“Interesting article with varied views.

Having been interested in this for over 30 years, the pertinent data is three fold.

1st. The change in age of society does hold a huge influence on criminal activity. There is a statistic from the drug scene stating if people involved with drugs live past the age of 30 there is better than 50% average they will (a) give up drugs and or (b) be incarcerated. Either or they tend to be out of the criminal activity to feed their habits. Plus the outrages of the ‘60’s have had a significant impact on those who would openly advocate stupid drug use.

2nd. The NRA statistics are compelling. At the same time Texas (about 1999) liberalized concealed carry and ownership of guns robbery, burglary, assaults dropped dramatically. This has been replicated in other states, and communities.

3rd. Not mentioned above, but just as significant is the prosecution of gun crimes under Federal Laws. Everywhere local or state authorities have insisted upon prosecution of crimes with guns using the Federal Courts the frequency of these crimes drop. Not just a little bit. Yet, the Obama Administration has almost entirely refused to prosecute these types of crimes. Coincidence? Not likely. But again Holder refuses to prosecute a whole series of crimes. Want to take a bigger bite out of crime? Go for the big time federal sentences.

While not mentioned above but significant, has been the use (or abuse) of current anti-psychotic / anti-depressant drugs. The new batch of these has a very, very sketchy result. The Arizona incident, and others were and are related to users of these drugs. These are the same group of drugs used with PTSD issues in troops returning from combat, and we know the rate of suicide among them is disproportional.

Having been stationed at a the primary post for 6th Army (SPD) disposition of criminal behavior (1969-71), our rates of self abuse or suicide were much lower even among multiple deployment veterans. We unfortunately saw our share of issues but not at the population rate of those today using these drugs. It is interesting to note here that those troops were (US)draft era. The troops we see today are RA (regular army). One would speculate, just on the issue of involuntary draft status, there would be more PTSD or psychological problems than with a volunteer force. That is not the case and is my opinion the “chemical” answer is the primary problem.”

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Huffington Post Reader Grumpy Man

“Notably missing among the many reasons that crime has dropped – gun control laws.

Why is it that criminologist, economists, sociologists, and other experts never credit gun control with crime reductions?

Things that make ya say “Hmmmmmmm…”

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Huffington Post Reader Ed Baker writes in response:

“Because it doesn’t work. New York City, gun control capital of the world has a 50% higher homicide rate than the rest of the country.

Detroit is another gun control haven – and it’s in a race with Chicago to be the murder capital of the US. Chicago also has an enormous amount of gun regulation. DC – same story.

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Huffington Post Reader TheMorrigan

DD WROTE: “Some ardent NRA and other gun owners say the decline has occurred because so many Americans have chosen to arm themselves and have, therefore, created safer streets and homesteads. Anti-gun proponents point to the increase in the number of gun laws as being the reason violent crimes are on the downswing. There are no firm statistics to back up either theory.”

But it does disprove the gun grabber “more guns more crime” rhetoric.”

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Huffington Post Reader roloro1557 writes:

“My pick? Surveillance cams. (My brother has worked in the security field.) They are truly everywhere now. Banks and other high cash places have had them the longest. Now, many if not most apartment buildings and businesses have them at entrances, exits, and parking lots. Nearly all intersections that have a stop light in my city have cams now. Surv cams are very inexpensive now, and DYI kits abound that will save you even more money. Also many times the cams are hidden and the crooks know that. It’s really hard for a defense attorney to argue his client didn’t do it when he is caught on video tape. *wink* It’s a very real deterrent.”

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Huffington Post Reader slowdime writes:

“The fact that there is more housing assistance and more welfare available or food stamps doesn’t make it a reason for a decrease in crime public housing units have historically been high crime areas
that will never change.”

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Huffington Post Reader tommyg54 writes:

“Is Crime down in the USA? It seems to be a Left or Right toss-up. The Left says we have to ban a type of gun to stop gun violence. The Right says we need more guns. The Media uses polls to prove their point. The poll says this and the poll says that. The latest poll on gun control said that 90% of American voters were in favor of background checks. This leads people to believe that more then 2 million voters were asked, but only 1,770 voters were involved with this poll. How does that number represent 90 % of the American voters. I say get your local news paper or go on line for it and check out the crime section and use your own judgment.”

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Huffington Post Reader dancerctry writes:

“Every thing you do, even little and controversial things make a difference. That guy says abortion legality but I point to the rise in use of birth control. If you can’t afford a child but have one you will live in poverty. That can (but doesn’t always) lead to the parent/parents working so much and carrying so much stress and anger over their situations where that child is more likely to join gangs and/or sell drugs (and the violence that goes along with that) as well as generally commit criminal acts out of stress, frustration, survival, ect….. But the best thing for that particular problem is both contraceptives and the rise in programs to help the poor and poor children. Frankly though, I think almost everything mentioned (plus birth control and stronger internet security) played a part in the decline of crime. As for guns, I’m on the “stricter gun laws” side because a gun intended for protection is more likely to lead to a classic western style shoot out, the owner never getting to the gun in time if someone broke in, the criminal getting to the gun first or using the gun on the owner, the criminal not knowing of the gun ownership so it wouldn’t keep them away, the criminal breaking in to steal the gun if known about, and the much more common “thinking it’s an intruder but accidentally shooting a friend/family member.”

Diane Dimond March 21, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Huffington Post Reader Doug 871 responds:

“Your opinions on gun ownership likely leads you to ignore certain facts regarding the increase in allowed concealed carry across the country. Now almost every state has relaxed to some extent the right to carry, and as a result there have not been the “western shootouts” the the critics have claimed. In fact, the crime rates have decreased in part because the criminal element has to be more concerned that their potential victim is armed. And an interesting side not on concealed carry – the only state that has not relaxed its laws is Illinois – and look at its crime rates.”

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