Thursday, January 5, 2017

Why have crime rates dropped so much in the U.S., yet we still don't feel safe?

Is normal life in America more dangerous than ever? That seems to be the feeling if you listen to most people, who feel that crime is growing, criminals are running rampant, and they’re less safe than ever. But, in fact, research points to the fact that quite the opposite is true, as we covered in part one of this blog.

So why do we still think our society is rife with crime?

According to a 2014 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans report thinking "there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago.” In fact, about 63 percent of Americans surveyed say that crime is up over just one year ago.

That pessimism that we live in a lawful and orderly society also mirrors a long-term trend, with Americans saying they feel crime is up nearly every year they're polled, despite crime actually falling by about 4% or more year-over-year recently.

In fact, except for a couple of anomalies, serious crime has dropped every year from 1994 through 2015. For instance, in 2013, the number of homicides in the U.S. fell to 14,196 for the year – down from a peak of 24,703 in 1991 despite the population increasingly significantly in that period! Overall, violent crimes including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery have fallen 38% between 1992 and 2011, and many of them even more since that year.

But for more than a decade now, that Gallup poll, as well as many others, report that Americans believe crime is up – and getting worse.

This revelation has completely shocked many experts, directly contradicting their prognostications.

"Recent declines in rates of violent crime in the United States caught many researchers and policymakers off guard," wrote criminology professor Gary LaFree in 1999. "These declines were perhaps more surprising in that they came on the heels of dire predictions about the rise of a generation of 'superpredators' who would soon unleash the full force of their destructive capacities on an already crime-weary nation."

No matter what metric you look at or which report you read, it's evident that crime rates have dropped significantly in the United States over the last thirty years. In fact, it's the one thing that experts can agree upon. However, what's bizarre is that from sociologists to law enforcement personnel, political theorists to renowned economists, no one can quite put their finger on WHY crime is down.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study of the decline of crime in U.S society comes from The Brennan Center, who recently issued a report examining multiple theories for why crime rates have fallen off a cliff in the U.S. since the early 1990s.

According to The Brennan Center’s study, here are some possible factors:

An aging population commits less crime
The Baby Boomers are by far the largest generation in American history, with about 75 million citizens 65 years or older right now. One theory goes that as the Boomers matured and the averaged population gradually aged in the U.S., fewer crimes were committed (following research that most crimes are committed by younger people.)

Decrease in alcohol consumption
Some political scientists point to the fact that alcohol consumption in the U.S. has declined since the early 1990s, albeit only slightly. But fewer people under the influence of alcohol equate to less bad decisions and criminal behavior, they argue.

Economic prosperity drove crime down
The 1990s were the salad days for the U.S. economy, with low unemployment rates and higher incomes almost across the board. Some experts point out that with increased economic prosperity, it’s natural that there were fewer criminals that had to rob, steal, sell drugs, etc. to survive.

A larger and more efficient police presence
In the 1990s, policing got a complete overhaul in many major cities. Thousands of new police officers were hired, training improved, and the force started integrating technology that allowed them to combat crime strategically and efficiently like never before.

Higher incarceration rates
During the 1990s, and continuing today, the incarceration rate skyrocketed in the U.S., as we now lock up more of our citizens, both in real numbers and percentages, than any country in the world. Is a drop in the crime rate simply a factor of doing a goo job putting the bad guys behind bars?

Taming of the 1980s crack epidemic
The introduction of the powerful and highly addictive new drug, crack, rocked major U.S. cities in the 1980s, virtually overnight. But one theory is that as the police, courts, treatment and addiction centers, etc. caught up with the crack cocaine epidemic, it was only logical that crime rates would fall.

Prevalence of anti-depressants
In the 1980s and earlier, there was little or no diagnosis or treatment of depression, anxiety, ADD, and other conditions that could explain anti-social behavior like crime.

Changes in lead poisoning
Are you thinking of lead? The neurotoxic element stunts intellectual growth in children and causes behavioral problems when they become adults, but it wasn’t seen as a possible culprit for a nationwide crime wave until recently. In her 2007 paper on the relationship, economist Jessica Reyes attributed a 56 percent drop in violent crime in the 1990s to the removal of lead from gasoline after the Clean Air Act of 1970.

With children born after the early 1970s less affected by lead’s toxic effects, the logic goes, they would be less likely to commit crimes once they reached their 20s in the early 1990s. Mother Jones reporter Kevin Drum helped popularize the theory in his 2013 cover story. “In states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime declined slowly,” he wrote. “Where it declined quickly, crime declined quickly.” And, perhaps most intriguingly, the correlation held in other countries, too.

Increases in technology, computers, and cell phones
Does our technology make it harder for criminals to operate, easier for us to protect ourselves and stay informed, and catch the bad guys?

So what's the right answer? 
The Brennan Center meticulously studied the possible influence of all of these theories. They found that most of them could only possibly account for only a marginal decrease in crime rates. In fact, their conclusion was that all of these factors together could only statistically justify maybe a one-third reduction in the crime rates we’ve seen.

However, another less-publicized theory could hold the secret to why we think crime is growing every year, despite the fact that it’s dropped significantly: media coverage.

Simply put, the more headlines about murders are splashed on newspapers, the more the nightly news leads with another shooting or a home invasion, and every time we see a mugging or assault in our social media newsfeed, the less safe we feel – despite evidence to the contrary. For instance, in 1991 when there were an all-time high 24,703 murders in New York City, for a homicide rate of 31 out of every 100,000 people, the New York Times mentioned "murder" or "homicide" only 129 times.

But in 2013, when the homicide rate was a much lower 4 people out of every 100,000, the New York Times mentioned “murder” or “homicide” 135 times!

That's just one prominent newspaper, and these days, news websites, news feeds, digital news in public places, TV news, and social media accounts are everywhere, telling us that we're not safe.

As a nation, we’re ingesting an exponentially higher number of messages about violent crime, and therefore, we think that reflects our reality.

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