Jack Nicas reports in the WSJ:
Bank holdups have been nearly cut in half over the past decade--to 5.1 robberies per 100 U.S. banks in 2011. Though the nationwide crime rate is dropping, the decline in bank robberies far exceeds the decline in other crimes, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data. Preliminary 2012 figures released last week show the lowest tally in decades: 3,870 bank robberies, down from more than 5,000 a year earlier.
Bank-security experts and former FBI agents attribute the decline to stepped-up security and tougher sentencing for bank robbers. Many also say that more recently, sophisticated criminals are recognizing bank robbery as a high-risk, low-reward crime and are migrating online.
Improved security and tougher sentencing are plausible reasons for the decline. I am skeptical of the claim that individual criminals are switching from armed stickups to cybercrime, though. These two modes of stealing require different "skill sets," and I expect few people are really capable of choosing between them.* * *Wells Fargo said that after it installed "bandit barriers" in more than 100 Southern California branches in the 1990s, robberies there fell more than 70%.
Also helping are federal sentencing guidelines for convicted bank robbers introduced in 1987, which allow judges to add years for a criminal history or use of a weapon, security experts said.
In the early 1980s, a former Los Angeles antiques dealer named Eddie Dodson single-handedly robbed 64 banks, before pleading guilty to eight robberies and serving 10 years in prison. After his release, he robbed eight more banks, said Mr. Rehder, the FBI agent who helped catch him--twice.
Compare that with the case of Harold Walden, a teenager convicted in 1992 of robbing five banks who is serving a 73-year prison sentence. "Once you're caught now, you're going to get hammered," Mr. Rehder said. "That acts not only as a deterrent, but it also locks these [serial robbers] up for a long time."
The movement toward electronic transactions rather than currency does have an effect on the cost-benefit ratio for a potential bank robber, though. Cash on hand at banks is simply less in purchasing power than it used to be. When Bonnie and Clyde took all the cash on hand at one bank branch during the Great Depression, that was a lot more purchasing power than a robber would get today.