Success in the Media

The Real Murder Mystery? It’s the Low Crime Rate

August 2, 2009
The Real Murder Mystery? It’s the Low Crime Rate–New York Times
By SHAILA DEWAN
MAYBE it is time to call in one of those clairvoyants who help detectives solve the case. Because no one else can explain what criminals have been doing in the first half of 2009.

Not that the news is bad — from New York to Los Angeles to Madison, Wis., major crimes, violent or not, are down between 7 percent and 22 percent over the same period last year. In Chicago, the number of homicides dropped 12 percent. In Charlotte, N.C., hard hit by the banking crisis, that total fell an astounding 38 percent. It is too soon to conclude that crime will decline throughout the recession, and the new numbers, which come from standardized reports that police departments send to the F.B.I., have yet to be made into a national measure. But crime was supposed to go up, not sharply down.

The surprise is yet more proof that tea leaves and sun spots may be a better predictor of crime rates than criminologists and the police. Despite the large sums the country spends on law enforcement — just last week, the Justice Department awarded the first of $1 billion in stimulus-package grants to police departments — experts are largely at a loss to explain what makes the crime rate go up or down. Even the exceptions to the latest trend are baffling. Why, for example, did crime go up in Denver, of all places? Denver isn’t sure.

Many experienced criminologists admit to being confounded, but point out that economists have no better track record. “If I could predict the crime rate,” said Barry Krisberg, the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, “I’d start working as a stock broker.”

No single lens — sociological, econometrical, liberal or conservative — seems an adequate one through which to view crime. The economy, which seems as if it should be fundamental, has never been a good predictor; the Prohibition era was far more violent than the Great Depression. Adding prison beds has not helped; the incarceration rate has marched grimly upward for decades, while the crime rate has zigzagged up and down, seemingly oblivious. Years ago, criminologists thought demographics explained a lot — remember the warnings about thousands of cold-blooded, teenage “superpredators” in the mid-1990s? — but demographics cannot shed light on what is happening now. Improved policing deserves credit for bigger declines in certain cities, but not the overall national trend.

Scholars have attributed lower crime rates to everything from an influx of immigrants, who tend to keep a low profile; to changes in public housing policy that have dispersed the poor; to better medicine (more lives saved in the operating room equals fewer homicides); to a marked shift in the attitudes of the young and poor (the hip-hop generation, which was supposed to be desensitized by explicit lyrics and large swaths of visible underwear, has turned out fine).

The search for a silver bullet — a single factor that could explain the steady drop in crime since the mid-1990s — has taken theorists far afield. There is the abortion theory, which proposes that legalized abortion reduced the number of unwanted children who turned to a life of crime. It’s a seductive explanation for United States data, but it does not bear out in other countries that legalized abortion in the 1970s, said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. There is the gun theory, which posits that expanded gun ownership rights have deterred criminals who now must consider whether their victims are armed. But that does not explain the most significant decline in the country, in New York City, where gun ownership is low, said Mr. Zimring, who dedicated part of his book, “The Great American Crime Decline,” to debunking such theories. (Despite writing that exhaustive volume, Professor Zimring admits that for criminologists, “the score is Know: 2; Don’t Know: 8.”)

Even mainstream theories can falter under scrutiny. The idea that illegal drug use drives up crime is not bolstered by statistics that show that the percentage of those arrested in New York City with illegal drugs in their system has remained more or less flat, Mr. Zimring said.

One reason for the lack of answers is lack of money, said Alfred Blumstein, a prominent criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “The National Institutes of Health spends $400 million a year on dental research,” he said. “The National Institute of Justice spends $50 million a year on criminal justice research.”

Perhaps as a result, police departments and prosecutors can be swayed by fads, spending millions on programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., which came under fire from critics who said it lacked a proven success record (it later changed its strategy). “Police research is to research like military music is to music,” Mr. Krisberg said. “It has never matured to be a very sophisticated science.”

For the police, of course, crime policy is a political matter, with new theories attracting new money. In 2006, when violent crime inched up by less than 2 percentage points, the Police Executive Research Forum issued a report called “A Gathering Storm.”

But the police were not the only ones who thought crime could not stay at post-1960 lows. The thugs and marauders were supposed to be back with a vengeance after the horrors of crack cocaine receded from memory; the safety net was dismantled; and education reform proved slow.

Last year, The Third Way, a progressive think tank, gathered governors like Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, now President Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services, and Janet Napolitano of Arizona, now secretary of Homeland Security, to warn of “the impending crime wave,” identifying such factors as “the lengthening shadow of illegal immigration” and “the sprawling parentless neighborhood of the Internet.”

Such appeals to Americans’ fears, several criminologists said, is often linked to a political agenda fueled less by crime than by another variable that is famously unfazed by real-world predictors: public perception. Along with its report, The Third Way released a poll showing that by a 5-to-1 ratio, Americans believed crime was worse than it had been the year before. By year’s end, though, the national crime data showed a decrease. In Atlanta, where crime is down 10 percent, a recent series of high-profile incidents has spurred critics to hammer the mayor over what they call a crisis.

While the decline may not have taken hold in the minds of the public, it has undermined a cherished belief, particularly among liberals, in root causes — that criminals are born of misery and the limited options of poverty. “There are people that are putting up with an awful lot of suffering, and they’re not complaining all that much,” said Andrew Karmen, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

But the fact that so few forces have a demonstrable effect on crime can be viewed, in a twisted kind of way, as good news. The decline, Mr. Zimring said, has shown that it isn’t necessary to accomplish major feats, like improving education or raising wages, or punitive ones, like increasing prison sentences, to bring crime down. Smart policing can have an effect. “Crime isn’t an essential part of cities as we know them,” Mr. Zimring said. Instead, it is a mystery with a direction all its own, one that may be beyond the reach of public policy. Which is easier to tolerate when that direction is down.

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