14 October 2010

Crime Drops To Just Above 100 Year Low

Crime victimization rates measured by a 68,655 person survey, the most comprehensive measure of crime rates, since it captures crimes not reported to police, was in 2009 atthe lowest levels since the survey began in 1973, despite high unemployment and a dismal economy.

The violent crime rate declined from 19.3 to 17.1 victimizations per 1,000 persons during 2009. . . . This decline continued a longer-run decline from 51.2 victimizations per 1,000 persons in 1994 and brought violent crime rates to their lowest levels since 1973, the first year that BJS collected data from crime victims through its National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS).

The property crime rate declined during 2009 from 134.7 to 127.4 crimes per 1,000 households, primarily as a result of a decrease in theft. This decline continued a longer-term trend of declining rates from 553.6 crimes per 1,000 households in 1975.

In 2009, an estimated 4.3 million violent crimes (rapes or sexual assaults, robberies, aggravated assaults and simple assaults) occurred, as well as an estimated 15.6 million property crimes (burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and household thefts) and 133,000 personal thefts (picked pockets and snatched purses). These offenses included both crimes reported and unreported to police.

Violent and property crime rates in 2009 remain at the lowest levels recorded since 1973, the first year that such data were collected. The rate of every major violent and property crime measured by BJS fell between 2000 and 2009. The overall violent crime rate fell 39 percent and the property crime rate declined by 29 percent during the last 10 years.

Between 2000 and 2009, the rate of firearm violence declined from 2.4 incidents per 1,000 persons age 12 or older to 1.4 per 1,000 persons. Offenders used firearms in 8 percent of all violent crimes in 2009.

In 2009, men were slightly more likely than women to be victims of violent crime. Women were more likely than men to be victimized by someone they knew. Seventy percent of all violent crimes against women were committed by a known offender (an intimate, family member or friend/acquaintance), compared to 45 percent of violence against men. Twenty-six percent of the non-fatal violence against women was committed by an intimate (current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend), compared to 5 percent of the violence against men. . . .

Estimates from the NCVS, which includes offenses both reported and unreported to police, complement those from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR), which measures crimes reported to law enforcement agencies across the Nation. Unlike the NCVS, the UCR includes crimes against persons of all ages and businesses, as well as fatal crimes. UCR results released by the FBI in September showed a 6.1 percent decline in the rates of violent crimes reported to the police and a 5.5 percent decline in the rates of property crimes during 2009.

Obviously, low crime levels are good news.

There are a host of reasons that could help to explain the numbers.

Incarceration rates are high. Drug gang related crime is down as the nation shifts to home grown marijuana and prescription drugs. The baby boomers have aged out of the ages where crimes are most likely to be committed. A long economic boom provided legitimate jobs for young adults and people turn to crime only after sustained periods of lack of attachment to the labor force. A wave of immigration brought a greater percentage of people interested in making a decent living, rather than turning to a life of crime, into the population. Young adults are more likely to stay in school. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided constructive outlets for people with violent tendencies. Abortion and contraception legalization reduced the number of people born in dire economic circumstances who would have been adults now, and teen pregnancies (inferred from teen births plus teen abortions) are current at a record low. Lead paint mitigation programs greatly reduced lead poisoning and IQ reductions that would have helped tip many poor young people into a criminal life style. Public housing officials figured out that creating densely populated neighborhoods entirely full of people in dire poverty was a bad idea. Falling prices for the things that people steal, like home electronics, increased security measures in cars, and reduced use of cash, have made it less profitable to live a life of crime. Police tactics may have improved. DNA evidence has made it easier to lock up more serious criminals.

Some of the strongest contenders as causes of the surge in crime in the U.S. from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, which has now reversed itself, are changing demographics (particularly the baby boom), and the consequences of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill until high levels of incarceration counterbalanced that effect, and "social disorder" however one chooses to quantify it.

Long Term Trends In Crime Rates

The fact that we are at a twenty-six year low, of course, also understates just how good it is now. The nation didn't start recording crime rates at a time when crime was at a record low, it started recording crime rates because of the fear that crime rates were soaring. The crime rate as measured by the older UCR series roughly doubled from 1960 to 1973. To look back earlier, you have to resort to a parallel statistic, the murder rate. The year 1963 was the end of a trough in the murder rate, which fell more or less steadily from 1933 until then, when it started to rise again. The murder rate had been rising steadily from 1900 to 1933 and had reached the levels it would again fall to in 1963 around 1907.

There were 5.0 murders per 100,000 people in 2009, the lowest it has been in my lifetime. It was slightly lower in the late 1950s to about 1963 (at the low point it was about 4.6 per 100,000 people), but was higher than that from around 1910 to the mid-1950s, and from 1963 to the 2008.

Thus, if crime fell even 8% in 2010 from 2009, which it might, considering the recent trend, 2010 could turn out to have the lowest crime rate in a century, although not all categories of crime are precisely comparable (car theft wasn't a big problem in 1900).

In any case, prior to 1910, the accuracy of crime records grows increasingly fuzzy. From 1861 into the early 1870s, we experienced the Civil War and then lingering counterinsurgency activity in the South. The first modern police departments start to form in the United States and began to keep more accurate records starting in the 1880s, and at first were found only in large urban areas. Court record keeping before then was patchy, especially on the frontier in the 18th century and early 19th century, where an ongoing series of "Indian Wars" were in progress complicating the distinction between war deaths and murders, and many people lived in loosely governed territories that had not yet been formed into states.

The evidence that we do have from court records suggests that life wasn't particularly peaceful. The Old West was known for its lawlessness. Appalachia experienced many decades of blood feuds between warring families. The early 19th century was the hey day of dueling. Governments were weak, and as a result, not very good at maintaining public order. Coroners had less formal training than Nancy Drew. Systemic investigation of crimes was all but non-existent. The primitive state of medical science meant that even injuries that would not be life threatening today could have been deadly then. The only things that prevented crime from being worse were that the quality of the guns back then was attrocious, and that people were widely spread out and didn't interact with each other nearly as often.

Better record keeping in the Old World, however, suggests that declining crime is a part of a very long term trend:

Historians now say that homicide rates were extraordinarily high in Europe during the Middle Ages -- and high in the United States during the early 19th century -- then declined steadily until the 1960's. . . . "There really has been a civilizing process" in which . . . an increase in state power and courtly manners beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries helped curb impulsive, violent behavior. . . .

New data . . . showed that the homicide rate in Amsterdam, for example, dropped from 47 per 100,000 people in the mid-15th century to 1 to 1.5 per 100,000 in the early 19th century. . . . the homicide rate in medieval England was on average 10 times that of 20th century England. A study of the university town of Oxford in the 1340's showed an extraordinarily high annual rate of about 110 per 100,000 people. Studies of London in the first half of the 14th century determined a homicide rate of 36 to 52 per 100,000 people per year.

By contrast, the 1993 homicide rate in New York City was 25.9 per 100,000. The 1992 national homicide rate for the United States was 9.3 per 100,000.

Medieval European homicide rates were comparable to those in the most homicide plagued countries in the world today.

Some of the oldest data available in the United States is intriguing:

Official justice administered by courts replaced private vengeance conducted by feuds, fights and duels. Challenging conventional academic wisdom, Mr. Elias suggested, too, that the power of the state extended to cities first, so urban homicide rates would be comparatively low.

Recent research indicates that he was right. In Philadelphia, for example, the annual average rate of indictments for homicide fell from 4 per 100,000 in the 1850's to 2.2 in the early 1890's, according to research by Roger Lane, a history professor at Haverford College. The drop occurred as the city became industrialized and despite the greater availability of firearms during the period.

In other words, it isn't unreasonable to guess the crime rate is almost as low as it has ever been in the history of the United States right now. And, while it is a tad ambitious and premature, it isn't unreasonable, given long term trends and international comparisons, to see the surges in crime in the United States from about 1900 to 1933, and from 1960 to 1994 as aberations against the background of a steady long term trend driven by economic development towards less crime in society as a whole.

International Comparisons

The United States still has more crime than many other nations in the developed world. But, a decade and a half of falling crime rates has narrowed that gap considerably. And, many other places in the world have meanwhile seen crime surge.

Venezula, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico are wracked with violent crime and public disorder right now. The British still have far fewer murders per 100,000 people than we do, but their non-murder crime rates have soared in recent years. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has spawned a wave of organized crime activity as society became far more disordered. The Horn of Africa is all in a state not far removed from violent anarchy. Intercommunal violence midway betwixt crime and war has surged in the African Sahel as Islamic communities are pressured by a drying Sahara to push South into Christian/Animist communities. The Congo War plunged Central Africa into an orgy of violence that often lacks enough organization to be honestly described as purely military and has not fully abated even though it has become less intense. France's latest efforts to expel the Roma from their country are being justified publicly by concerns about rising crime committed by members of this community, although I don't have enough accurate information about the situation there to evaluate it neutrally.

The net result of all of this is that the murder rate in the U.S. is lower than the murder rates in any region in Africa, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and in Central Asia and the Transcaucasian countries.

It is higher than in the "Near and Middle East/South-west Asia" but only excluding deaths from the ongoing war deaths from the insurgency in Iraq, and and is higher than in Oceania, than in South Asia (again, probably excluding war deaths in various insurgencies), in Southeast Europe, in East and Southeast Asia, and in West and Central Europe.

Individual U.S. states sometimes are far better off than the national average. For example, New Hampshire's murder rate (the lowest in the United States) is about a sixth of the national average, a murder rate lower than that of Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Australia, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Canada, New Zealand and South Korea (although not as low as the murder rate in Austria, Norway, Japan, Singapore and Iceland).

Put another way, the murder rate in the United States is higher than any other country in the developed world that was not part of the collapsing Soviet empire, but has finally reached a point where it is below that of most Third World and below that of many countries with developing economies (although both India and China have murder rates far lower than the United States and on a par with Wisconsin, Connecticut and Wyoming.

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