Explaining the U.S. Crime Decline


The crime level has dropped in the United States over the past two decades, but definitive explanations are lacking. With funding from the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, the National Academy of Sciences has organized a project to address that important issue. In a chat with The Crime Report's Washington Bureau Chief Ted Gest, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri- St. Louis—who heads the effort—explains the project's aims, reports on the topics covered at the first sessions in Washington in June, and explains why it would be a “bad bet” to assume the crime drop will continue indefinitely.

The Crime Report: How is this project organized?

Richard Rosenfeld: It is a so-called “roundtable” on crime trends. The group met in June, and we plan to hold five more sessions over the next three years to hear from experts about various aspects of changes in crime rates over time, both in the United States and elsewhere. We're primarily focusing on changes in the United States over the last several decades, but at our first meeting we also talked about centuries-long changes in Europe and the U.S., going back to colonial America.

This is a broad and comprehensive look at changes over time in crime, and some of the factors connected with those changes.

TCR: Who is involved?

Rosenfeld: There are 16 members of the roundtable. Twelve are academics, including nine criminologists: myself, Eric Baumer of Florida State University, Shawn Bushway of the University at Albany (SUNY), Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge, Susan Herman of Pace University, Dan Isom of the University of Missouri-St. Louis (a former police chief); Janet Lauritsen of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Maria Velez of the University of New Mexico, and David Weisburd of George Mason University and The Hebrew University. The other academics are public health expert David Hemenway of Harvard; historian Randolph Roth of Ohio State University, and economist Jose Scheinkman of Princeton University.

Non-academics in the group are Jim Bueermann, a former police chief who now heads the Police Foundation, District Attorney George Gascon of San Francisco; Maxine Hayes, Washington State Health Officer, and Florida Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman.

TCR: Tell us about the first two sessions.

Rosenfeld: We met in Washington, D.C., for two days in June. The five public sessions covered these topics: U.S. crime trends in historical perspective, trends disaggregated by offense type, regional and local variations; gender, race and ethnicity of victims and offenders; and U.S. crime trends in international perspective. The content of the presentations, all of which were made by roundtable members, may be seen at this site

At our next meeting, which will also be in Washington, at an early December date to be determined, we will focus on the “lead hypothesis,” that the removal of lead from paint and gasoline resulted in crime declines some years later and may largely explain the crime drop. We'll hear from people who have researched that topic. We haven't yet set the agendas for the four sessions that will follow that.

TCR: Is this project in and of itself likely to reach a conclusion on why crime has dropped?

Rosenfeld: We may reach some conclusions but National Academy roundtables are not designed to recommend courses of action. Rather, the idea is to bring together scholars and practitioners, look over the available research, review the state of the evidence, and generate new research findings.

We will commission papers not only from our own members but also others. This roundtable may end with an edited volume summarizing our discussions.

TCR: Is this roundtable unique in the crime field?

Rosenfeld: There was an earlier one that dealt with violence, not only criminal acts but other kinds of violence. Our field has not been silent on this issue. For example, Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Joel Wallman of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation published a book of papers, The Crime Drop in America (Cambridge University Press, 2000.)

And Franklin Zimring of the University of California-Berkeley wrote about dropping crime in New York City (The City that Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and its Control, Oxford University Press, 2012.)

Two decades after the crime decline began in the U.S., it's time for some summing up in some systematic way.

TCR: Is it likely that we'll conclude that there is a single reason that crime has dropped?

Rosenfeld: It is possible one or two factors will emerge as dominant. It's also possible there will be a half dozen. It's too early to identify the relevant factors,

If you trot out the usual suspects, the economy is an important one. Criminal justice processes, perhaps most importantly mass incarceration, are on the docket; and there are others such as the lead hypothesis. The roundtable won't be able to tackle all of them, but can say something important about many of them.

TCR: Can you mention some other possible factors in the mix?

Rosenfeld: Some observers have proposed that behavior altering medications of children may have contributed. There have been other hypotheses, such as the widespread use of tranquilizers and treatments for attention deficit disorders.

TCR: There also is the theory that the increase in abortions played a big role.

Rosenfeld: That has been addressed fairly extensively, and the evidence is decidedly mixed. It may have played a role, but the impact was not so great as was originally proposed.

TCR: What about cultural changes, including the idea that many in the current younger generation rejected the crime-prone ways of their parents?

Rosenfeld: Cultural arguments are quite important but are more difficult to measure. We will not ignore those. For example, some people believe that a younger generation of kids rejected crack cocaine use after the epidemic of the 1980s because it had become heavily stigmatized: that it was something that older people did, and it wasn't cool on the streets in the 1990s. That phenomenon could have been broader.

Also, criminologist Gary LaFree of the University of Maryland and roundtable member Randolph Roth have suggested that on a long-term historical basis, the ebb and flow in confidence in political institutions and trust in political leaders has had an impact on homicide rates. It's an intriguing idea. I would note that such confidence and trust is not very high now, but we haven't yet seen an uptick in crime.

TCR: The most popular explanations for the crime drop now seem to involve criminal justice measures. What do we know about that?

Rosenfeld: The evidence from policing research is robust that “smart policing” in high-crime areas can reduce crime in those areas. There also is evidence that increases in incarceration can reduce crime in the short run. So there is evidence that the criminal justice process makes a difference

(However), no study has shown that criminal justice efforts, not necessarily limited to the police and corrections, are responsible for all or most of the crime decline.

I use the analogy of doctors and hospitals. While we wouldn't discount their role, they don't control lifestyles, and are not wholly responsible for increases or decreases in illnesses. Clearly medical intervention makes a difference, just as criminal justice has. (But) when the cancer rate goes up, we don't blame hospital directors.

TCR: The roundtable will produce an analysis of the crime drop, but is that a substitute for actual research?

Rosenfeld: Our papers could involve new findings. I don't want to discount the possibility that it will produce new results, but its primary function is to take stock. We may conclude that some new research is essential.

Given all of the popular attention to crime, I find it surprising that criminologists have not been more interested in researching this issue. I hope that our work will help revive interest.

TCR: Can we be confident that the crime drop of the last two decades will continue for a long time?

Rosenfeld: No. Of course, the crime decline could turn around. We don't know. It would be a bad bet to say the crime drop will continue indefinitely.

TCR: What is the track record of experts in forecasting crime trends?

Rosenfeld: Just as the crime drop was beginning in the 1990s, there were some claims of an impending bloodbath and an increase in “super-predators.” Since then, there has been very little crime forecasting but it would be worth reviving. Good forecasts must be based on systematic knowable evidence, which was not the case with the ones I cited.

TCR: Why is it important to study the reasons for crime's decline?

Rosenfeld: It affects lives and economic stability of localities, among other things. The less crime, the more lives have been saved that would have been lost, and fewer young people have entered the criminal justice system.

Economic development has tended to stop at the door of higher crime rates. Neighborhoods where crime has fallen have come back to life.

Popular pressure to spend money on criminal justice weakens as crime goes down. To the degree that criminal justice resources have contributed to the crime decline, we don't want to deplete those resources.

If there are policy lessons from the crime drop, we should try to bottle them.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers' comments.

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