Psst Barack…Stop an economic crime wave before it starts (we’ll tell you how)

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The Obama Administration should take three steps to address the impact of the current economic crisis on crime rates: (1) restore funding to local law enforcement agencies; (2) target stimulus spending to maximize its crime-reduction effects; and (3) speed the dissemination of crime data and statistics.

Crime rates typically increase during economic downturns. There is no reason to believe that the current economic crisis will be any different; indeed, the severity of the crisis could push up crime rates to levels not seen in decades. But the crime increases can be mitigated by policies that assist local law enforcement in combating crime, reduce the motivation and opportunity to commit crime, and speed the dissemination of information vital to determining whether the crime-reduction initiatives are working.

The Obama Administration should take three steps to address the impact of the current economic crisis on crime rates: (1) restore funding to local law enforcement agencies; (2) target stimulus spending to maximize its crime-reduction effects; and (3) speed the dissemination of crime data and statistics.

An essential first step in addressing expected crime increases is to increase the capacity of local law enforcement agencies to control crime. That means hiring more police officers and deploying them in crime-reduction strategies of proven effectiveness. The specific vehicle for delivering the necessary funds (e.g., Byrne Grants, COPS) is less important than insuring that they are targeted for maximum effect. The research literature supports so-called hot spots strategies that target areas of dense criminal activity with enhanced patrols. These approaches appear to reduce crime in the targeted areas with little displacement to surrounding areas. Federal funds should go only to those agencies that commit to using them for hot spots enforcement, or other strategies that credible research has shown to reduce crime, and that commit to systematically evaluating their effectiveness.

The Administration has proposed a huge stimulus package to revive the economy. Recent research has shown that the Roosevelt Administration's public works programs helped to mute crime increases during the Great Depression. To maximize the crime-reduction effects of such programs, they should be targeted on jobs and training for young men, especially those in the nation's inner cities hardest hit by the recession. Other things equal, a young man with a job or receiving training for a better job is less likely to resort to crime than one who is jobless and hopeless. Obviously, fairness and overall economic impact dictate that employment and educational opportunities also go to young women, rural populations, and older workers. But if crime reduction is a chief goal of new stimulus funds, a significant portion must be targeted on young men in disadvantaged urban areas with high crime rates.

Ironically, what seems to be the easiest step in addressing crime increases — speeding up the dissemination of crime data and statistics — could be the most difficult. Policymakers, the press, and the public must wait far too long for the FBI to release basic information about crime patterns and trends in the nation.

As I write in late January of 2009, economic data and statistics of all kinds are available for December of 2008. Policymakers and the business community would not stand for a longer delay in the release of vital information on economic performance. But even rudimentary crime statistics are not available for the period since June 2008 — the period during which the economic downturn went into overdrive — and those for the first half of the year were released only a few weeks ago. That's fast by FBI standards and reporters and researchers can scour the websites of local police agencies or contact them directly for more recent information, but there is no technical reason for the delay or such catch-as-catch-can labors.

The Administration can avoid a lengthy and distracting battle with the FBI by going around it and tasking the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Justice Department's statistical arm, with compiling and disseminating monthly crime statistics, initially from the computerized records of large police agencies, eventually from the records of a representative sample of jurisdictions. Only with timely information in hand can the press and researchers monitor the effects on crime rates of hiring more police officers, stimulus programs, or other Administration policies.

Richard Rosenfeld is the Curators Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri – St. Louis

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