The media’s tendency to report on only bad news has many Americans convinced we’re swamped in crime, but really we’re rapidly approaching historically low crime rates. Crime rates have decreased nearly every year since 1994. The national crime rate is about half what it was in 1991.
Increased incarceration used to be the go-to explanation for declining crime rates.
And it’s true that, for a country that professes a culture of freedom, a shocking percentage of Americans are behind bars. America is the undisputed global leader in incarceration. Over the last 40 years, our country has seen a 500 percent increase in the occupancy of our prisons and jails. The rise is mostly the result of harsher sentencing and a crackdown on victimless crimes. Roughly half of our inmates are drug offenders.
Scholars today, however, argue that diminishing returns make it unlikely that our severe incarceration policy holds the key to crime reduction.
While studies with controlled variables and complicated statistical analysis abound, the causal link between increased incarceration and a declining crime rate is best debunked by the simple fact that states with decreasing incarcerations have continued to see declining crime rates. Fifteen states have cut their incarceration rates in the last decade without witnessing a resurgence of crime. If there is a magic number at which incarceration stops being an effective method of decreasing crime, many U.S. communities surpassed it long ago.
What, then, has caused the drop in crime?
Attempts to understand this phenomenon have researchers scrambling. No one explanation completely fits the data points available. Common sense provides a plethora of possible answers. Most scholars agree that our declining crime rate is due to an assortment of factors. Which elements have most contributed remains debatable.
In the popular book Freakonomics, co-author Steven Levitt points to the legalization of abortion; fewer unwanted children in fewer broken homes equal fewer career criminals. In 2007, Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, a public health policy professor at Amherst College, published a study that found a strong association between childhood exposure to lead and aggressive and criminal behaviour. Reyes argued that a decrease in lead exposure resulted in fewer aggressive kids with psychological problems. John Roman Ph.D., a senior fellow in the Policy Advisory Group and the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., looks to the community benefits of upper-class immigration into poorer neighborhoods. While David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire allege that widespread use of antidepressants has simply put everyone in a better mood.
A 2015 study from the Brennan Institute, meanwhile, found that growth of income and a decrease in alcohol use were the most likely causes of crime reduction since the 1990s.
This makes sense. For some, crime is seen as the only option. Americans with legal sources of income are less likely to turn to crime out of economic necessity. The alcohol hypothesis seems less intuitive, but 40 percent of crimes are committed by an intoxicated perpetrator. Still, the report attributes only five percent to 10 percent of the decline to each of these factors. An aging population and increased policing have added to the effect. Researchers admit that even after combining the impacts of no less than 14 identified causal factors, they are far from explaining the phenomenon of falling crime rates.
Other scholars have pointed to technological factors that decrease the ease of crime and increase the likelihood of arrest. Still others argue that we are taking much too narrow a view on crime statistics. Crime has actually been declining in cyclical waves since as long as we’ve had any data at all, indicating a propensity away from crime as people become more civilized. Internet commenters notwithstanding, we seem to be cleaning up our act as a society.
The hard truth is that no one has a single, clear answer to why crime rates have fallen in recent years. What researchers can agree on, however, is that our policy of widespread, long-term incarceration is not the magic bullet some thought it to be.
With the cost of incarceration running on average $23,000 per person each year, not to mention wasted lives, this is undoubtedly good news and cause to reconsider who we jail and why.
—The Alternative Daily