The Great American Crime Drop, Part II

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Some of America's noted criminologists examine some of the most common explanations for the country's falling violent crime rates–and find them lacking.

During the 1990s, the favorite solution to reducing crime was incarceration. That is, mass incarceration: mandatory minimums and 25-to-life three-strikes sentences for stealing a slice of pizza. The consequence today is more than two million people behind bars, the world's largest per capita incarceration rate. No one among the experts I spoke with, however, suggested that as a factor in 2009's crime drop.

Quite the opposite.

“The dramatic increases in incarceration did contribute to the crime decline in the 1990s,” says Richard Rosenfeld, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The bulk of the evidence shows that. But from 2000-2009, the rate of incarceration slowed. In New York, for example, it's flat or in decline. So the current decline can't be ascribed to incarceration.”

John Jay Professor David Kennedy agrees. Recent incarceration rates have been marginal,” he says, while decreases in crime have been dramatic; so any new increases “are likely to be grabbing low level [criminals]. Anything going on is taking place at the margins in terms of incarceration, and is not very powerful.”

Carnegie Mellon University Prof. Al Blumstein also dismiss incarceration as a factor. “We're close to equilibrium in terms of changes in incarceration,” he says. On the average, the inflow is roughly equal to the outflow. We're way down to less than one percent increase [in imprisonment], whereas for most of the '80 and '90s the rate was going up by 6 to 8 percent a year.”

Lengthy Sentences

Meanwhile, Todd Clear, a noted criminologist from John Jay College, points to mass incarceration's corollary: lengthy prison sentences. “The length of stay in prison in England hasn't changed that much and England's violent crime rate has gone down very similarly to that of the U.S.; same with Canada,” he says. “The increasing length of prison stay in the U.S. has been a pattern for about 20 years, so I'm not persuaded that that's a big cause of the current decline.”

Another factor raised in connection with the reduction of homicides is the most obvious one: the presence (or lack of) guns. But how significant is it?

“In the last two-and-a-half years we made all our people understand that if they could do nothing else but catch a guy with a gun, they're making the city safer,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, told the Baltimore Sun in January, 2010. In roughly the same time period, the Baltimore PD has seized 5,000 illegal guns, and Bealefeld has credited a focus on illegal gun seizures as a significant factor in gun crimes dropping by 16 percent–a figure that, as the Sun pointed out, included “aggravated assaults involving guns, street robberies and carjackings.'' Moreover, 130 fewer people were shot, than in 2008. And although four more people were murdered, 2009's homicides were still very close to 2008's — which were the lowest in two decades.

Nonetheless, 5,000 guns represented a small fraction of the number believed to be owned by the city's 600,000 residents; murders have been declining in Baltimore since 2000 – six or seven years before the new emphasis in gun seizures; and the city's population has fallen by 100,000 people. So while it's hard to argue that getting illegal guns off the street is not a very good thing that should be pursued, it's equally hard to argue that it's been a conclusive factor in Baltimore's decline in gun crimes.

Stop and Frisk?

Meanwhile, in late December, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly lauded his department's controversial stop-and-frisk policy as a “lifesaving” tool that had taken 7,000 weapons and 800 guns off the street. In a highly controversial tactic, the NYPD has notoriously been using marijuana arrests as a stop and frisk justification for seizing weapons. But, again, has it been effective in reducing violent crime?

“There's little question that in New York mass stop-and-frisk policies have served to reduce crime,” says Rosenfeld. “But it sweeps marginal people up in the net and generates resentment. Marijuana arrests in New York have skyrocketed, and young blacks have been targeted. They are seven times more likely to be subject to arrest than whites. But [those arrests] do have a marginal effect on crime. 'Broken windows' policing [like enforcing marijuana laws] has contributed to the crime decline in New York, and has been significant for homicide and robbery reduction across New York City, although it cannot explain the entire decrease.”

Carnegie Mellon Professor Alfred Blumstein agrees, “Stop-and-frisk and getting guns off the has been important part of policing in New York,” he told me. “It was a very important part of the big crime drop of the '90s. If you've got enough resources, as New York does, then you can do aggressive stop-and-frisk in the neighborhoods where retaliatory violence is going on. Certainly getting guns out of the hands of people that shouldn't have them has been important, but I don't think that it suddenly had a big spurt in 2009.”

“[NYPD Commissioner] Ray Kelly attributes stop-and-frisk to New York's continuing decline in crime (but) I think it's more than just that,” says former LAPD chief William Bratton. “I think it's the COMSTAT system. Malcolm Gladwell's tipping point factor has come into play, and that behavior in New York City has tipped phenomenally. People just don't routinely walk around with guns and knifes like they used to. But the stop-and- frisk issue in New York is extraordinarily controversial, because of the racial impact. But I think that [stop and frisk] does have an effect on crime: it does in fact catch a number of criminals. We use it very effectively in Los Angeles with jaywalking, traffic stops, drinking in public. But it does upset those being stopped, and you have to able to justify it and explain yourself. That's a challenge in New York.”

There is, of course, no conclusion, no definite answers to the questions raised by the drop in murders and violent crime in 2009. And there is no guarantee that the slide will continue, particularly if the Great Recession proves long and/or jobless.

But it hasn't occurred in a vacuum either.

Nineteen years of crime declines, some dramatic, some small, is a long time. It could be that a number of factors are the cause: cultural, police crime reduction strategies, changes in crime patterns, the gentrification of low income areas — all coming together collectively and separately in cities across the nation. The breadth of the decline suggests that we [investigate] equally broad causes,” says Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis. That could include the absence of significant drug market expansion, and decline of criminal opportunities during the recession. The more likely people are to stay at home, the more likely this will deter residential burglaries, Rosenfeld observes. He adds that “drops in personal income weaken the incentives for street criminals to supply underground markets.”

The questions raised by the reduction in violent crime come at an extraordinarily opportune moment. Virginia Senator James Webb's proposal for the establishment of a National Criminal Justice Commission appears to be coming to fruition. Like President Lyndon Johnson's landmark crime commission of the 1960s, Webb's commission could set the agenda for smart, data-driven crime reduction for decades to come. To paraphrase Richard Rosenfeld: criminologists, not to mention social scientists and cultural anthropologists, better get busy.

Joe Domanick is the Associate Director of John Jay College's Center on Media, Crime and Justice, and The Crime Report's West Coast Bureau Chief. He can be reached at domanick@usc.edu.

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