Violent Crime: It’s Not the Economy

The FBI recently released annual statistics indicating that violent crime was down 5.3% in 2009. Property crime went down 4.6%. 2009 was the third year in a row violent crime dropped.

Those numbers run contrary to the popular belief that bad recessions, like this one, result in an increase in crime. The Wall St. Journal’s Ashby Jones explains how the drop came about:

Policing experts attribute lower rates to a number of factors, from improved policing tactics to demographic trends.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the more than $4 billion the Obama administration steered toward law enforcement in the 2009 economic-stimulus legislation “helped maintain public safety and encourage new criminal-justice innovations.”

But the future might look a bit dimmer on the crime front, reports Perez. With federal funds likely to drop off and local governments cutting budgets to deal with revenue shortfalls, the number of police officers is expected to drop. Some crime specialists wonder whether that could lead to a rise in crime down the road as a delayed effect of the recession.

The Boston Globe’s James Alan Fox says that although a weak economy doesn’t by default produce more criminals, officials shouldn’t use positive FBI statistics as an excuse for police budget cuts. Cuts in prevention and patrolling, for example, make it easier for existing criminals to operate:

It is rarely the case…that someone loses a job at the bank and decides to rob another bank to make ends meet. Those who lose their homes to foreclosure do not typically go out and burglarize other people’s homes for some quick cash. The decision to pursue a criminal career is largely independent of job market conditions.

It has been in some of the poorest and most crime-infested neighborhoods where the negative effects of police budget cuts have hit the hardest. Over the past decade, city police departments have been asked to do more, but with less. The emphasis on homeland security and the attempt to protect potential targets of terrorism have left many hometowns unsecured against ordinary street violence.

Unfortunately, the healthy decline in aggregate crime rates can easily be used to justify further budget cutting for law enforcement and other areas of the criminal justice domain. Those who advocate lowering taxes to benefit beleaguered wage earners might want to think twice: A few extra dollars in the pocket is of little value if you’re staring down the wrong end of a gun.

The American Prospect offers some reality behind recession-crime correlation:

In contrast to the high-crime (and prosperous) 1920s, the Great Depression saw significant declines in violent and property crime (the unemployed are poor targets for theft). Violent crime soared during the 1970s and early 1990s, but in both cases, drug violence was the culprit — heroin in the 1970s and crack-cocaine in the 1990s.

Absent an external “shock” to the system — like a new drug epidemic — there was never any reason to think that crime would increase during the recession. That said, violent crime in the United States is still very high — at least when compared to other developed nations — and millions of Americans continue to suffer from the reality and threat of violence.

It’s also worth noting that although aggregate crime rates are down, some regions, like Houston, are bucking the national trend with an increase in crime. The US still has some very violent, high-crime pockets. Knowing the locations and nature of those hotspots is a better way to stay safe than simply assuming that crime is down everywhere.

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