National rates of violent and property crime will keep falling through 2021 and possibly beyond, if current social, economic and demographic trends in the U.S. continue, according to a new study.
The decline in crime is likely to persist even if imprisonment rates are reduced—and in some cases decarceration at the state level may even strengthen the trend, say three of the country’s most prominent criminologists, who conducted the study for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
“Future crime rates will be driven largely by non-criminal justice factors” such as teen birth rates, inflation and divorce rates—all of which are projected to fall, concluded the study authors, James Austin, a senior associate with the JFA Institute; and Todd Clear and Richard Rosenfeld, both former presidents of the American Society of Criminology.
Their conclusions come in the midst of an election campaign that has generated fearful rhetoric in some quarters about rising crime, and bluntly counter arguments from “law and order” advocates that corrections reforms leading to reductions in prison populations will leave Americans at the mercy of hardened criminals.
“The guiding assumption of our analysis is that the net effect of prison [population] reduction on public safety depends on other conditions, such as the state of the economy and demographic trends, that together have a more powerful impact on crime rates than imprisonment,” the authors said.
“Policymakers must gauge the consequences of lowering the prison population in concert with realistic assumptions about trends in the other factors that raise or lower crime rates.”
To inform their predictions, the authors created two models that incorporated crime data from the 1980s and 1990s—when crime rates reached an historic peak—through 2016, with trends in non-criminal justice factors, such as the teen birth rate, which fell by more than half between 1980 and 2016.
“With few exceptions those economic and demographic changes have been exerting downward pressure on crime for nearly the past four decades,” the authors wrote.
In what they termed the “worst case” projection, violent crime rates will inch upwards from 2017 to 2020; but by 2021, the rate would return to 2008 levels. Under a “best case” projection, the violent crime rate would drop from its 2017 level of 382 violent crimes per 100,000 population to 320 by 2021, which would sink the rate to its lowest point since 1968.
Similarly under the “worst case” model, property crimes in 2021 would drop to a level not seen since 2005; but using the more optimistic model, the property crime rate “would have descended to a level not seen since 1960.”
Editor’s Note: An online tool based upon this model that allows users to observe the effect of changing these predictor variables on violent and property crime rates is available here. A similar model for the state of Illinois will soon be available.
A second model arrived at very similar conclusions about reduced crime rates, after adding additional contributing factors such as juvenile arrests, projected fertility rates, and changes in household income.
Aggregating the two models suggests that “crime will continue to decline moderately at a rate similar to the past five years, levelling out at about 2,443 crimes [in all categories] per 100,000 by 2027.”
Imprisonment Rates and Crime Control
The authors’ principal target, however, was the impact of correctional policies and imprisonment rates on crime, and they acknowledged that the national databases they used for their projections—the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and the National Crime Victimization Survey—don’t necessarily reflect the impact of decisions by state, county and municipal jurisdictions which collectively represent the bulk of the U.S. criminal justice system.
Even so, they noted that several studies have already shown that state decisions to reduce prison populations have had little impact on crime rates—and in some cases have even led to crime declines.
“By way of example, the average imprisonment rates in Massachusetts and Nevada between 1978 and 2016 are very different: 136 versus 434 prisoners per 100,000 population,” the study said. “Yet the estimated drop in robbery for every 1 percent increase in the imprisonment rate is exactly the same for both states: a .59 percent drop.”
Homicide rates appear equally impervious to the size of state prison populations, the authors said, noting, for example, that Washington state has an imprisonment rate half that of Texas, but both states report roughly similar declines in murder rates.
“We find that a state’s level of imprisonment has little to do with what happens to its rate of murder over time and nothing to do with its rate of robbery,” the authors wrote.
“This is further evidence that the aggregate, national impact of imprisonment on crime does not translate into advice that states should maintain higher incarceration rates to suppress crime.”
But in pointing out the significance of “non-criminal justice factors,” the authors also opened up a thornier debate about the most effective economic and social policy tools that can drive further crime declines, or prevent them from rising.
Predictions of declining national crime rates over time also do not take account the factors that have led to spikes in homicide in many U.S. cities this year, and they offer small comfort to residents of at-risk communities where violent and property crime remains a daily threat.
The authors make clear, nonetheless, that there is little evidence to show that scrapping traditional approaches to punishment, involving harsher sentences that leave more people incarcerated for longer periods, will endanger Americans.
“It is inconceivable to many policy makers that both crime and incarceration rates could be simultaneously reduced,” they wrote. “[But] we now have clear evidence that lowering state and federal imprisonment rates will not necessarily trigger increases in crime. “
Moreover, basing any crime forecasting model on incarceration rates without taking into account social, demographic and economic factors is an insufficient guide to policymaking, the authors said.
They suggested that further analysis that looked at the interconnection between all these factors at the state level would form a sounder basis for state correctional and community supervision policies.
“While accounting for past crime trends is an important exercise, of greater value to society and policy makers would be methods for projecting future crime rates based on assumptions about a small set of key factors, some modifiable through policy and some not,” the authors wrote.
James Austin is a Senior Associate with the JFA Institute. Previously he was a research professor at George Washington University, executive vice president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and a correctional sociologist at Stateville Penitentiary, Illinois Department of Corrections.
Todd Clear is Distinguished University Professor at Rutgers University. He has served as president of the American Society of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.
Richard Rosenfeld is Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He is a fellow and former president of the American Society of Criminology. His current research focuses on crime trends and the impact of policing on crime.
The complete study, entitled “Explaining the Past and Projecting Future Crime Rates,” can be downloaded here.
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report.