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The Elephant in the Crime Stats Living Room

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There's a whole lot of shakin' goin' on among the heads of criminologists, as FBI figures show a drop in crime despite tough economic times. This AP article by Devlin Barrett is most remarkable for the factor that the experts he interviewed did not dare to mention -- the "elephant in the living room."

Preliminary FBI crime figures for the first half of 2009 show crime falling across the country, even at a time of high unemployment, foreclosures and layoffs. Most surprisingly, murder and manslaughter fell 10 percent for the first half of the year.

"That's a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions," said Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied crime trends.

A drop in property crimes may be unexpected during a recession, as there is some correlation between unemployment and property crimes. However, a drop in violent crimes in such a period should not surprise anyone, as there is no significant correlation to begin with. People do not commit rape and murder because they are in financial need; they do it because they are evil.

James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said he was not surprised by the overall downward trends.

"The popular wisdom is wrong," said Fox. "If a law-abiding citizen loses their job, they don't typically go on a crime spree."

Fox argued the decline is partly due to the graying of America. As the over-50 population grows, he said, crime goes down, even while other social costs, like health care, go up.

I often disagree with Fox, but he is right on this point as far as he goes. We shouldn't be surprised by the numbers, and "graying" is indeed a factor.

There is another factor, though, not mentioned in the story. We have no way of knowing if the experts interviewed didn't mention it or if they did but the reporter decided not to print it. I suspect it is the former.

Year-to-year fluctuations don't tell us much. The long-term trends are that violent crime went way up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, dropped sharply in the 90s and generally continued dropping at a slower rate in the decade now ending (the 00s?). Demographics are part of that, as Fox says, but the fact that we went soft on crime in the 60s and 70s and then toughened up in the late 80s is also a factor.

But we mustn't mention that, you see, because so many people are so heavily invested in telling us that it would be "smart on crime" to repeat the mistakes of the 60s.

Elephant? What elephant? I don't see any elephant.

Doug Berman has this post at SL&P with excerpts from and links to a couple of other stories on the subject.

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