Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why are Americans so Obsessed with Crime, when Crime is at an all-time Low?

By Tom Kando

For the past 20 years, America’s crime rate has been declining. What I have been telling my students for years was confirmed again recently when the FBI published its annual Uniform Crime Report.
The US crime rate peaked in the late 1980s. Since then, it has declined almost non-stop, with some minor fluctuations.

A familiar argument used to be that annual crime statistics reflect record-keeping and law enforcement practices, rather than true changes in the real numbers of crimes committed. By now, this no longer washes at all.

The decline is too enormous for that. Furthermore, the drop is also found in easily tallied crimes such as murder, not subject to "record-keeping" whims. Criminal homicide peaked at over 10 per 100,000 in the late 1980s. Today, it is in the 4 to 5 range - i.e. less than half of what it was. America’s crime rate is now as low as it was during the 1950s - the "good old days."

Yet the public’s perception is that crime remains out of control. Paranoia is up. Worry about crime is as deep as ever.

This misconception about the extent of crime is just one error. Equally widespread are beliefs about the causes of crime. In a short post, I can only address the single most prevalent error - the belief that crime is primarily caused by poverty. Facts do not support this belief whatsoever, yet it is perhaps the single most widely quoted cliche, one voiced by politicians, peace officers, any lay person briefly interviewed on TV in some American city, even some criminologists, who should know better.

For the past 3 years, crime has plummeted, even as the economy tanked. The same thing happened ruing the Great Depression of the 1930s. Conversely, crime reached all-time highs during the Roaring Twenties and the turbulent sixties, both eras of great economic wealth and expansion. It sometimes almost seems that the correlation between crime and economic progress is negative!

Does punishment matter? We are now locking up astronomical numbers of people. 10 to 20 times as many as during the 1960s. By far the largest number of any country on earth. This trend began during the late 1960s. Does this factor have anything to do with the decline in crime?

Sorry, progressive readers, but yes, it does. The enormous increase in incarceration has made a contribution to the reduction of crime.

However (sorry conservative readers): we are now locking up far too many people. The optimal level of imprisonment was reached a long time ago. The law of diminishing returns has been in effect. It is now time to lock up fewer people, not more.

So why do most people still worry, erroneously, more about crime than about almost anything else?

There are many reasons of course, but two things seem very apparent: (1) The country is in a nasty mood right now, because things are hard. So it makes sense for people to feel that "life sucks all around, so crime must also be rampant, right?" and (2) the fear of crime is aided and abetted by the sleazy opinion-forming media and popular culture: Chanel surf your TV on any given day, and ten of the twenty shows being broadcast at any time of the day are likely to be crime and cop shows... Same with Hollywood and the printed press. That’s our culture, alas. leave comment here