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Jane Ahlin, Published July 27 2013

Ahlin: Global crime rates down, but reasons are unclear

The cover story for The Economist last week concerns crime rates around the “rich world” – emphasis on Europe and America. Titled “The Curious Case of the Fall in Crime,” the story shows that a dramatic change in crime rates over the past 20 years is a mystery worthy of Easy Rawlins, Kinsey Millhone, Miss Jane Marple and Kurt Wallander all together. With many statistics, anecdotes and theories considered, the story leaves us readers scratching our heads.

Early on, The Economist tells us to forget social theories. “Conservatives who insisted that the decline of the traditional nuclear family and growing ethnic diversity would unleash an unstoppable crime wave have been proved wrong. … Left-wingers who argued that crime could never be curbed unless inequality was reduced look just as silly.”

Instead, without calling it a perfect storm of demographics and security measures, the writers make clear it isn’t as easy to get away with crime – at least the traditional types of crime – as it used to be.

Certainly, “Western societies are growing older, and most crimes are committed by young men.” But demographics don’t explain why “in some parts of Manhattan … the robbery rate (was reduced) by over 95 percent.” In fact, in London, “the number of 18- to 24-year-old men has been increasing in recent years, and yet the decline in crime has continued.”

Instead, computer-analyzed data, targeted policing, sophisticated alarm systems, cellphone location, security tags and private video cameras – utilized by almost every store and apartment building – make crime riskier. Thieves, especially old thieves, like easy targets, or “as every survey of criminals shows, the main deterrent to crime is the fear of being caught.” Fewer opportunities lead to fewer crimes.

The only theory the story discounts almost entirely is the notion that “far harsher prison sentences” have helped. As analyzed in the magazine, “Harsh punishments, and in particular long mandatory sentences for certain crimes, increasingly look counterproductive.” (Citing 20 percent of California prisoners as being over 50 years of age, the article questions the cost-benefit of keeping them in prison because it costs $47,000 per inmate per year – “about the same as a place at Stanford University.”)

One of the articles associated with the story of dramatically changed crime statistics begins in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a place beset by crime and drunkenness in the years immediately following the breakup of the Soviet Union and Estonia’s independence. With a drop in the murder rate of “70 percent” since 1995 and an almost identical percentage drop in “robbery and car theft,” no explanation is clear. The change is even more impressive when the recession of 2009 pushed Estonia’s unemployment rate to “19 percent (and) the crime rate kept falling.”

The same has proved true in America. “The number of violent crimes has fallen by 32 percent since 1990 across America as a whole; in the biggest cities, it has fallen by 64 percent.”

And the recession did not prove to be a big factor here, either. The dwindling of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the late 1990s along with a move toward repopulating cities brought good results that have continued.

A vague overall reason for falling crime rates around the world suggested in “The Economist” is a better-behaved generation of young people. High unemployment may keep young people living at home into their 30s – much to the dismay of their parents – but the trend also makes them less inclined to excessive drinking or doing drugs, which are associated with crime.

Not surprisingly, crimes that are on the rise are Internet scams and financial fraud and skullduggery. Troubling outliers among traditionally reported crime statistics are sexual offenses, which seem immune to the combination of factors lessening most violent crime.

One interesting theory calls today’s crime rates normal and the 1950s to 1980s period when crime dramatically increased the historic anomaly. Nice thought, but as any good detective might say, we really don’t have a clue.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.