What's Behind America's Falling Crime Rate

The murder rate in America is at an all-time low. Will the recession reverse that?

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New York City police officers

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Criminologist Conklin believes that two statistics in particular — median age and the unemployment rate — help explain the ebb and flow of crime. Violence is typically a young man's vice; it has been said that the most effective crime-fighting tool is a 30th birthday. The arrival of teenage baby boomers in the 1960s coincided with a rise in crime, and rates have declined as America has grown older. The median age in 1990, near the peak of the crime wave, was 32, according to Conklin. A decade later, it was over 35. Today, it is 36-plus. (It is also true that today's young men are less prone to crime. The juvenile crime rate in 2007, the most recent available, was the lowest in at least a generation.)

"The effect of unemployment," Conklin adds, "is problematic." Indeed it is. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute dissected this issue in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. "As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008," she wrote, "criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the 'root causes' theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over 7 million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s." To Mac Donald, this is proof that data-driven police work and tougher sentencing are the answer to crime — not social-welfare programs. Conklin thinks it may be too soon to tell. "The unemployment rate began to spike less than a year ago. We may yet see the pressure show up in crime rates," he says. It's fair to say, though, that the belief in a simple cause-and-effect relationship between income and crime has worn pretty thin.

The danger of chronic joblessness is that jobs are a part of the social fabric. Ideally, they connect people to constructive projects and well-ordered institutions. They foster self-discipline and reward responsibility. Some optimists theorize that crime rates might continue to drop in coming years as police pit their strength against a dwindling army of criminals. In his recent book, When Brute Force Fails, UCLA's Kleiman argues that new strategies for targeting repeat offenders — including reforms to make probation an effective sanction rather than a feckless joke — could cut crime and reduce prison populations simultaneously. Safer communities, in turn, might produce more hopeful and well-disciplined kids. It's a sweet image to contemplate in this sour era, but a lack of jobs is a cloud over the picture.

A more realistic view might be the one dramatized in Simon's HBO series, The Wire. In 60 episodes spread across five seasons from 2002 to 2008, the program humanized this tangled question of crime fighting with penetrating sophistication. CompStat-obsessed politicians fostered numbers-fudging in the ranks. Cool-headed drug lords struggled to tame their war-torn industry. Gangs battled for turf under the nodding gaze of needy junkies. Prisons warehoused the violent and nonviolent with little regard for who could be rehabilitated. It made for award-winning drama, but it also was a reminder that in every American city, neighborhoods remain where violence still reigns and it simply isn't safe to walk around. And national crime statistics mean nothing to the millions of people who live there.

In those places, the crime problem isn't solved; the fight is scarcely begun. To the many factors that have combined to cool the nation's violent fever, more must be added — more creativity, more pragmatism, more honest concern for the victims of inner-city crime. It's a daunting prospect. The will to keep working on the most persistent pockets of lawlessness will be severely tested in this era of unbalanced budgets. You might be tempted to say it's hopeless. But that's what people were saying 20 years ago, just before progress broke through.

With reporting by Sam Jewler / Washington

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