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Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts

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The title of this post is the headline of this NYT article by Richard Oppel (hat tip, SL&P).  As has become routine, the experts are baffled because none of their pet theories about what causes crime rates to rise and fall fit the data.  The once-popular demographic theory -- it's all about the percentage of young men -- crashed and burned when the baby-boom-echo crime wave failed to materialize.  The economic theory near and dear to left -- crime goes up when Jean Valjean must steal bread to feed his starving family -- does not fit the present crime drop during a recession.
There was no immediate consensus to explain the drop. But some experts said the figures collided with theories about correlations between crime, unemployment and the number of people in prison.

Take robbery: The nation has endured a devastating economic crisis, but robberies fell 9.5 percent last year, after dropping 8 percent the year before.

"Striking," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, because it came "at a time when everyone anticipated it could be going up because of the recession."
Normally, the heretical hypothesis that tough sentencing actually works is simply ignored, and we post our elephant-in-the-living-room graphic.  This time we have something a little different.  Note the last phrase in the first paragraph in the quote above.  Our old adversary, Berkeley Prof. Franklin Zimring, tries to spin this result into a contradiction of the efficacy of imprisonment.

As the percentage of people behind bars has decreased in the past few years, violent crime rates have fallen as well. For those who believed that higher incarceration rates inevitably led to less crime, "this would also be the last time to expect a crime decline," he said.

"The last three years have been a contrarian's delight -- just when you expect the bananas to hit the fan," said Mr. Zimring, a visiting law professor at New York University and the author of a coming book on the decline in the city's crime rate.

But advocates of the efficacy of tough sentencing do not focus on the number of people in prison or the percentage of the overall population in prison.  We focus on sending criminals to prison.  If numbers in prison decline because fewer crimes are being committed (in part, at least, because tough sentencing works), we would not expect crime rates to go back up as a result.  Tough sentencing has both incapacitative and deterrent effects.  The incapacitative effect lingers because the worst criminals, the ones we gave the longest sentences, are still in prison even as overall populations decline.  The deterrent effect depends on the threat of punishment, not executed punishment, and it remains so long as sentencing policy remains tough, even though declining crime rates produce a reduction in the number of people actually getting the tough sentences.

If crime rates continued to decline despite a major softening of sentencing, that would be a different matter.  Some people are claiming that, pointing to recent trends in a few states.  But I do not think we have enough sample size yet to make that case.

And, BTW, it is not bananas that I expect to hit the fan in California.

2 Comments

Your points bring up another issue--the humaneness of deterrence. Harsh laws may deter some people from ever ruining their lives through a life of crime. It's not just about the victims who are saved--it's also about the people who chose not to lead a life of crime.

It's nothing short of hilarious to see how far the Left will go to avoid admitting that prison works to reduce crime. It has come to the point that some people, commenting on SL&P, are denying that crime has dropped at all.

When the NYT admits it, and Cal Berkeley admits it, and the Pew Foundation admits it, the fact that there are still segments of the Left that deny it is astounding -- and revealing.

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