The FBI's preliminary data on reported crimes for the first six months of 2009, during the depths of the current recession, show drops in both violent and property crimes over the same period in 2008. The crime declines are dominated by reductions in the largest cities. Homicides fell 10 percent nationwide but 19 percent in New York City and 29 percent in Los Angeles. New York and L.A. also registered sizable drops in robberies and burglaries, crimes for monetary gain that past research suggests tend to increase during economic downturns, says criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of University of Missouri St. Louis.
Not all cities experienced crime decreases. Burglaries increased by 9 percent in Houston, 12 percent in San Jose, and by fully 25 percent in San Antonio during the first half of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. Robberies increased by 28 percent in Seattle. Still, the continuing nationwide declines are unexpected in the midst of a deepening recession. What then might explain the absence – or delay – of crime increases during the current recession? Five factors bear watching by researchers and the press.
1. Drug markets. Past recessions have been accompanied by expansions in illicit drug markets –
heroin in the 1970s and crack in the late 80s and early 90s. No comparable expansion in drug markets has occurred during the current recession. Even methamphetamine use has dropped in recent years. If drug market activity begins to accelerate, increases in homicide and robbery may follow, as they did during the height of the crack epidemic.
2. Policing. More effective policing is clearly part of the reason New York and LA continue to mount impressive crime declines. Compstat-type accountability systems, the use of real time crime information, and hot spots enforcement are spreading and may have contributed to crime decreases elsewhere. But effective policing is not cheap and its widespread adoption may be slowed by over burdened municipal budgets.
3. Target hardening. An unheralded feature of the recent crime decline is the double-digit drop in motor vehicle thefts over the past few years. As newer model automobiles with electronic locking and ignition systems continue to displace older vehicles, substantial decreases in motor vehicle thefts should continue.
4. Economic stimulus. Economic stimulus spending, particularly the extension of unemployment benefits, has cushioned the impact of the recession on millions of Americans. But while stimulus spending may help to account for the absence of recent crime increases, it cannot explain why crime rates have declined.
5. Declining criminal opportunities. The reduction of criminal opportunities can help to explain why crime rates fall when economic conditions deteriorate. When unemployment rates are high, more people remain at home, and burglars prefer to avoid occupied households. When people do venture out, they carry less cash and other valuables with them, making them less attractive targets for street robbers.
One factor conspicuous by its absence from this list is imprisonment. Skyrocketing imprisonment rates contributed to crime declines during the 1990s. But the increase in imprisonment has slowed in recent years and many states are implementing early release programs in the face of budget constraints. If the number of persons leaving prison begins to outpace the number entering, and post-release supervision and services remain unchanged, that will put upward pressure on crime rates.
– by Richard Rosenfeld , University of Missouri St. Louis