Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Graduate-Johns Hopkins University.
See a comprehensive overview of crime in the United states at http://www.crimeinamerica.net/crime-rates-united-states/
See a comprehensive overview of the most dangerous cities at http://www.crimeinamerica.net/city-crime-rates-top-ten-cities/
This is one of the most popular articles on Crime in America.Net. It was originally written in 2011 with a question from a student asking for the top reasons for violent crime.
From our review of articles, we understand that is no one really “knows” with precision what those factors are, and responses to the question are principally driven by politics and philosophy.
What follows will anger or disappoint many who fervently believe that their “cause” is essential to the argument.
Our criminological training is that governments do not control crime, communities or societies do; there is little the justice system can do if you decide to engage in violence, use drugs, participate in theft or buy stolen goods. We note that the criminological literature generally agrees that crime rises and falls over time at roughly the same rates in states and western countries, thus the explanations for crime seem to have a common, societal theme (i.e., drug use, universal agreements as to what is permissible).
It’s interesting that most articles do not mention gun control, yet there are lots of people who insist that gun control is essential to a safer society. We assume that with over 350 million firearms in the hands of Americans per the Washington Post, few believe that they will disappear quickly regardless of the efforts to control or eliminate them. Note that most violent crime (except homicides) do not involve firearms. Data collected by the FBI show that firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 41 percent of robbery offenses and 21 percent of aggravated assaults (by far, the largest category of violence) nationwide.
The economy is a contentious topic, but crime has skyrocketed during times of prosperity and has declined during economic downturns. The employment literature is “iffy” at best regarding employment and crime.
Race, class and social justice are strongly advocated by some but seem to gain little traction in most articles. Conservatives will insist that family, values, and gun availability for self-protection are driving factors.
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Considering this lack of consensus, we offer our views as to what drives/strongly influences violent crime. The original list from The Police Executive Research Forum (and other sources) follows.
- Massive child abuse and neglect regarding those caught up in the criminal justice system (often cited in numerous articles as poor parenting). There is data indicating that many (most?) female offenders have tragic histories of sex abuse.
- Poor decision-making skills on the part of offenders (probably driven by massive child abuse and neglect-described in other lists as “impulsive violence”).
- Drug addiction (we do not include marijuana).
- Alcohol misuse.
- Mental health issues (the criminal justice system is now the principle provider of mental health services). Government abdicated their role as the primary mental health provider through deinstitutionalization (closing mental health hospitals without building an effective community-based mental health system). Note, however, that the vast majority of people with mental health or emotional problems do not engage in violent crime.
- What law enforcement does and does not do. Multiple criminologists throughout decades have suggested the lack of relevance of police strategies in crime control until the recent unrest (2014-2016) due to police “use of force” issues. Rapidly rising rates of homicides and violent crime, and the suggestion that police officers are unwilling to put themselves at risk through aggressive tactics seem to be connected. We believe that the question has been answered. If you want to see the effect of police officers or strategies, remove them.
- Technology and target hardening. When I worked for the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (Department of Justice’s clearinghouse) as the Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention, the implementation of better doors and windows to deter burglary was the top strategy of the day. There are endless examples of vehicle theft and smartphone antitheft technologies as effective. One of our favorite tech solutions is the availability of smartphones where everyone can instantly report suspicious behavior. There were multiple articles on air-conditioning driving people inside during warm weather months thus decreasing social control of urban streets.
- Incarceration. 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 (cover story-Time Magazine-What’s Behind America’s Falling Crime Rate-2010). But the majority of criminologists and the great majority (90 percent) of the advocacy community would strongly disagree, but it’s mostly a philosophical disagreement-prison does have profound and negative social implications. We observe that after decades of staunch, vigorous and vehement opposition to incarceration, prison rates have fallen slightly or increased. Most agree that the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
- Repeat offenders and criminal history. 77 percent of felony defendants have at least one prior arrest and 69 percent have multiple prior arrests. 61 percent have at least one conviction and 49 percent have multiple convictions. 35 percent of those charged with felonies have 10 or more prior arrests and another 17 percent have between 5 to 9 arrests, thus 52 percent of charged felons have been arrested and before the courts many times.
- Alternatives to incarceration/decriminalization/sentencing reform. We are entering a new day of defining who gets formally processed by the criminal justice system. Keeping people out of the justice system (i.e., decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana use) and multiple additional strategies (i.e., sentencing reform, drug courts) may be necessary to keep people away from the harmful effects of a criminal record “and” allow the system to focus on more serious offenders.
The Police Executive Research Forum brought together police chiefs from across the country and asked their opinions as to developing crime issues, thus the list below reflects the perceptions of law enforcement leadership.
Top 10 Factors Identified as Contributing to Violent Crime.
- Gangs 82 %
- Juveniles / youth crime 80 %
- Economy / poverty / unemployment 74 %
- Impulsive violence / disrespect issues 74 %
- Release of offenders from correctional institutions 69 %
- Drugs-Cocaine 67 %
- Poor parenting 63 %
- Increased availability of guns 55 %
- Reduced cooperation from witnesses / victims 37 %
- Educational system-increasing dropout rates 36 %
Sample Additional Sources from Reputable News Sources
Lead being a major contributor at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/05/lead-violent-crime-kevin-drum_n_2412039.html
Generational issues, decreasing drug use, availability of abortions, lead at http://www.forbes.com/sites/neilhowe/2015/05/28/whats-behind-the-decline-in-crime/#e8afa2977336
Incarceration, police activities, aging population, growth in income, decreased alcohol consumption, employment, consumer issues, drug use at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/02/the-many-causes-of-americas-decline-in-crime/385364/
Use of medication for at-risk people, lead, aging population, new tech (cars are much harder to steal) decreased use of drugs, increased incarceration, more cops at https://www.themarshallproject.org/
Most people today accept that poverty, parental neglect, low self-esteem, alcohol and drug abuse are all connected in explaining why people commit crimes. Some people are simply at greater risk of becoming offenders because of the circumstances into which they are born. http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/intermediate2/modern_studies/crime_and_law_in_society/causes_types_crime/revision/1/
Risk Measurement Factors: Criminal History. Education/Employment, Financial, Family/Marital, Accommodation, Leisure/Recreation, Companions, Alcohol/Drug Problems, Emotional/Personal, Attitudes/Orientation
The Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1995/03/bg1026nbsp-the-real-root-causes-of-violent-crime
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