November 30, 2009

Understanding Why Crime Rates Fall

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

A New York Times story earlier this year explored a counterintuitive trend: despite the recession, crime rates in New York have fallen. Los Angeles and other large American cities exhibit similar patterns. This challenges a commonly held belief that crime rates rise and fall in large part based on economic changes.

So why do crime rates fall?

Everyone seems to have their pet answer for this question. Besides the economy, some will point to a rise in the number of law enforcement officers, tougher sentencing laws, even the legalization of abortion (according to the authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, anyway). I once had a student who was an ardent supporter of one political party and was convinced that crime rates rose when the other party was in power.

If only solving the crime mystery was so simple. Criminologists have been studying this issue and have come to a startling conclusion: we really don’t conclusively know why crime rates rise and fall.

Between 1990 and 2000, crime rates in the Unites States dropped precipitously. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, homicide fell 39 percent, rape rates fell 41 percent, and robbery fell 44 percent. Since that time, crime trends have leveled off for the most part.

But New York’s crime declines put these numbers to shame: 73 percent decline in homicide, 52 percent decline in rape, and 70 percent decline in rape—as well as an astonishing 78 percent drop in auto thefts. Analysts focused specifically on New York to see if any changes there could reveal clues about what causes crime to decline.

Crime declines

I lived in New York in the late 1980s as a college student at New York University, and it doesn’t take a sociologist to notice the drastic changes that have taken place in the city since then. Walking through Washington Square Park (at the center of the university’s main buildings) involved dodging rats and drug dealers at all hours of the day. There were many nearby neighborhoods students were warned not to venture into, especially at night.

I was one of the first to live in a new dorm that was just east of most other university property. Prostitutes regularly walked the streets around the new building, and a group of transients lived across the street in front of an abandoned building. My roommates and I casually watched one afternoon as New York Police officers barricaded our block and raided what we referred to as the crack house across the street. While moving in across the hall, one student had his clothes and other possessions stolen when his parents’ car was broken into. A block or two away stood the porn theater where Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle picks up Jodi Foster’s character (a child prostitute) in the classic 1976 movie, Taxi Driver.

Nyc in the 80s

New York City in the late 1980s

In one of the movie’s opening lines, Bickle describes New York as “an open sewer.” I wouldn’t have described life there in the late 80s in exactly the same way, but it was a different world when I returned years later. The “crack house” I once lived across the street from now features ground level shops like Ben & Jerry’s and small clothing boutiques. The gritty drug-infested neighborhoods we were warned away from are now upscale, gentrified neighborhoods with young families and sky-high rents. Even The Bowery, which was an open sewer of a street that reeked of urine and despair, has become a Mecca of new development, as seen in the new luxury high-rise building pictured below.


What reduced crime in New York?

Law professor Franklin E. Zimring explores this question in his book, The Great American Crime Decline. He suggests that there are many reasons for declines in New York and elsewhere in America.

It might seem like the most obvious reason for crime to decline in New York is the exploding rents and cost of real estate, pushing out low-income residents who might have more motivation to commit property crimes, for instance. Zimring notes that while this might make sense for Manhattan, New York City is comprised of five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx), yet crime fell throughout the city.

As Bradley Wright blogged about, some attribute the crime decline to the aggressive policing tactics former police chief William J. Bratton employed during his tenure in New York from 1994-1996. Bratton’s strategy mirrored the broken windows theory, the idea that if you eliminate small, quality of life problems like vandalism then you send a message to criminals that larger crimes will also be aggressively prosecuted. And yet crime rates also fell in cities that hadn’t changed policing strategies. Zimring attributes some of the decline to policing (from 25 to 50 percent, in his estimation), but also considers the high population density and strict gun laws as other potential factors. He also suggests that because of the high level of crime in New York before the drop, it had further to fall. Once again, there is no singular explanation of why crime fell in New York or in any other city.

Zimring concludes his analysis with several lessons we can learn from the crime decline, one of which is that we need to do more to compare crime declines in the U.S. with declines in other countries like Canada, where similar drops were observed but even though there were no significant changes in policing or criminal justice. He suggests that crime rates can drop “without major changes in the social fabric” (p. 206). In other words, it doesn’t necessarily take huge social changes to bring down crime rates.

The fact that crime rates have fallen so much is great news. But the fact that there is no simple solution can make it difficult for lawmakers to communicate the importance of some policies to their constituents. We tend to like simple solutions, but in this case there are none.


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This blog is very interesting and informing. It was not in my understanding that crime rates were actually dropping country wise; i actually did believed that because the country was in a recession, crime rates were actually rising. living in a city like jacksonville,Fl one would always think this, since it does have the highest state wide crime rate. I also think that crime rate is declining due to, what was refer to in the 1960's as "national happiness." One can see that people are being more generous and contributing more to help in the community in which the live.

I think that crime, as with many issues in society has many more than one singular cause. It would seem perhaps stiffer penalties for drug posession and sale would help in the decrease yet that facet of crime is strictely supply and demand motivated. I find it hard to believe that demand for drugs has decreased significantlely

I think that the reason for crime in America will never be answered because no one can understand the reason individuals act the way they do. We can study the things individuals do and attempt to predict individuals upcoming actions however people will always surprise you. Murders and rapist may have grown up like many other individuals, so what makes them act the way they do? I don't believe these questions will ever fully be answered therefore the reason for the rise and fall of crime is unknown with no particular cause.

This blog is definitely very interesting. It is funny to think that it really do not take some major turn or change in politics or criminal justice system for crime rates to fall. I think it could be just terms of better support and help from those of the communities. There are more outlets out there and more people and programs out there to better help people stand on their own and not having to turn crime and such to get what they need to survive.

This blog was very interesting to read. I lived in Queens, New York up until about 6 years ago. I can honestly say that I agree that things have gotten a lot better. Growing up, you were always told, don't play on that end of the block or don't talk to that guy standing outside of the corner store, and my favorite "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil". It was the underlying code to survival in a sense, if you kept to yourself and kept your mouth closed you would be OK. I laughed when I read read the part about the "crack house", because I grew up with one across the street, and then when it was knocked down, they moved into a house on the end of the block.
I personally think, the decrease has to do with the added police presence. Growing up, you couldn't get a cop to come by if your life deepened on it, literally. When they did show up, they didn't want to get involved. Now when I walk around my old neighborhood, I cant get down the block without running into at least two officers. They still are VERY hesitant to get involved in any issues, but I think just having that sense of authority close by keeps people from acting out.

I really enjoyed this blog entry. For the most part I found this blog to be very interesting but also believe it could have included a little bit more. I suppose that the fact that there are so many theories to why crime rates fall may have contributed to this. The falling crime rates In New York are great news to me, and I have truly felt safer walking down the streets these past few years. I believe that the New York City Police presence increase since the September 11th attacks may have had the most effect on the falling crime rate. After living in New York all my life the increase in officers can easily be noticed over the past few years. This in combination with the idea presented in the article of increasing rent cost has virtually driven away all the criminals. The idea that the decline in the number of low-income housing developments removes people who are more likely to commit crimes such as robbery and vandalism may seem cold, but could possibly be true. Whatever the reasons are for the drastic drop in New York City crime, they should be looked at more carefully. Other cities should try to emulate New York and its decrease in crime. Perhaps collaboration between the FBI and New York City Police Department could shed more light on the subject. The sharing of information such as increased police activity in key areas along with the FBI’s expert criminologists may possibly lead to some answers on how to prevent crime in large cities.

I dont think we will every really now why crime rates fall. You can guess all you want but no one will be certain because its not like you could go around and ask people why they stopped doing what they were doing because you dont know who was doing bad things in the first place. The numbers are quite amazing though and I think we should just go with the flow and not worry why they are decreasing but just be happy that they are.

I found this article very interesting. It gave alot of ifnormation about why crime rates have fallen. But it also missed some points. Todays society is starting to wise up. Although teens nowadays are introduced to violence at young ages, They are finally starting to mature when the get older and know right from wrong. They are realizeing that are harsh consequnces for there actions.

This was a very interesting piece of work. I didn't know that there was so much crime rate in New York! I thought there would be much more in like Detriot or Flint Michigan. But I guess there is more people in New York than in Michigan. I also thought because of the times we are going through that the crime rate might of went up, not down. I learned alot from this article. Thanks :)

I really enjoyed reading this! I found it astonishing that there is no known cause that reduced the crime rate. Also, the fact that it is not only happening in New York, but in other big cities! I am happy to know that someone is doing something right, I just wish we knew what it was =)

Crime rates are falling in todays society. I wonder who the people who commited these crimes hung out with in high school? Or if they didnt go to school what people made them do the things they did. I wonder if being in sports can help kids stay out of trouble because they have to much to do? Although this was a very well written article.

I Think Crime is a terrible thing especially murder. Even though probably half the cases in New york that lead to murder was probably because of drugs. I think that police need to wise up and find away to cut off the drug supply some how to increase the dangers that lye in the way.

I do agree that more aggressive policing tactics can help keep crime and violent actions down. I believe it shows people who would think of committing a crime that their actions are going to come with consequences. I do not agree, however, that having rent and real estate prices high which keep low-income people out keep the crime rates low because not all low-incoming people commit crimes. In some cases I can imagine a situation on where because of the expensive rent and real estate prices people have to commit crimes to make sure their family has all the necessary things needed to live. Overall, I think that the most of the reasons giving in this blog are very good and understandable reasons why some people might commit these crimes and what to do to help prevent future crimes.

I think that the decriminalization of drug crimes are the reason crime rates are down. The less things you have to sell on the black market, the less criminal activity will occur.

I really enjoyed the honesty of this article. Many people do want simple answers- because theirs more policing, theirs less crime. But, as this article makes clear, the simple answer is not always the correct or best answer.

This blog is very informative or good, the rate of crime is increasing day by day I think. the main reason behind all these is only the money.

This blog was very interesting. It is crucial to understand why crime rates fall so that we can stop them from rising again. I was fascinates by all of the different theories to explain it and I am sure that there are many more.

This article taught me a lot. I didn't realize that crime rates were dropping. I just read a chapter in my sociology book about deviance and why people do the things they do. I was asked questions such as do violent shows on television make teens more violent. It may make some teens more violent, but according to the statistics we have LESS violence, therefore the shows do not have a huge changing impact on people.
I think that the cause of most violence has to deal with drugs. People become addicted to them. When they are on them they do ridiculous things. When they can't get them they become crabby and will do whatever they can to get them. When people don't pay for the drugs the sellers get mad. And also when people are spending all of their money on drugs they have no money for other things, so they don't pay rent, and they steal the things they need.

This article was very interesting and i learned alot about crime that i never knew or thought about before. I just covered a chapter in my sociology class that dealt with social change, so i found it interesting that it didnt take a huge social change or anything to create a fall in crime rates. Your explanation as to why crime rates are falling was really good, along with the other theories you mentioned. good post!

It makes sense that crime rates are falling because we have more security today than we did years back. With police everywhere people won't commit illegal acts. I live in a small town so I never grew up seeing a lot of crime. It is interesting to think about why people do the things they do. Why would someone want to do something illegal when they know they will get in trouble with the law and possibly have to pay a lot of money?

Your article poses some very interesting and puzzling data about the crime rate decline in major cities. It is so astonishing that we cannot attribute these major declines in crime to any significant or insignificant social change in our society. All of the points made by Franklin E. Zimring in his book are valid suggestions for why the crime rates in the major cities of the United States have fallen. I believe that the gentrification of the area and the movement of members from lower socioeconomic classes out of the area carry the most weight for this argument. I also can understand how the hard-hitting policies of new police chief William J. Bratton could have had yielded some major changes on the cities crime rates. The most puzzling thing about this reasoning is that it gives suggestions for why the crime rate is dropping in New York City, yet it does not account for the other cities that experienced a decline in crime. More importantly, these reasons do not provide answers for why the crime rates have significantly dropped in countries other than the United States.

This article raises some very interesting questions. I have always thought that the decline in crime rates was due to a number of different things including police presence, economy, etc. Thinking about it more, I would say that maybe there is something that is so small or so broad that caused the crime decline that we have yet to catch it.

I can corellate this with increasing home security systems installations. Indeed, increased percentage of installed burglar alarms helped to reduce robberies, burglaries and other private property breaks-ins.

i find it very surprising that the crime rates are going down country to country.It has some very interesting points in it. The quotes by Franklin give a good reasoning for why the crime rates are going down.

I think it is pretty simple, as technology has increased, crime has decreased. It is MUCH harder to be a criminal today than it was even 10 years ago.

I think as many things in life there is a cycle of occurrences that have a beginning a peak and a decline. Many things take place from start to finish. People change, places and situations change with them. Several years ago Columbia was the main importer of cocaine and weed today it is Mexico. New York traded places with Texas who now has a large crime problem. Drugs, Illegal alien's, Drunk drivers and deaths on the highway, Gangs and the list goes on. Has the crime rate gone down or just traded places?

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