Why is crime declining in the United States, especially violent crime (38% decline since 1992)? For years Christian Right warriors like Jerry Falwell pointed to rising crime rates as the direct result of America’s abandonment of God and Christianity. Do falling crime rates suggest that America is becoming more faithful to God?
What makes the statistics all the more surprising is that crime has continued to fall in the difficult economic years since 2008, defying expectations and predictions. Liberals should be just as surprised as Christian conservatives. Is it possible that increasing income and economic hope is not the only way to reduce crime?
The Economist notes the various theories:
Everything from the removal of lead from petrol to the increased prescription of psychiatric drugs has been credited with the decline. A controversial theory proposed in 2001 by two academics, Steven Levitt (of “Freakonomics” fame) and John Donohue, which attributed half the previous decade’s drop in crime to the legalisation of abortion in the 1970s, still has fans. Today there is growing interest in the role of video games and social-media technologies in providing young men, who are responsible for the lion’s share of violent crimes, with alternative ways to spend their time.
Other analysts look to structural or demographic explanations. Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, acknowledges the success of policing strategies, but notes that an ageing society like the United States should expect to experience less violent crime. Immigration also matters, he says: studies have repeatedly shown that cities with large immigrant populations experience lower rates of violent crime.
Then there is the awkward issue of incarceration. America continues to lock up a scandalously large number of its people: around 1% of the adult population is behind bars at any time. But, says Mr Levin, “the relationship between the incarceration rate and the violent-crime rate is not very strong.” New York has not followed the national mania for imprisonment, and yet the decline in its crime has been among the most impressive. Indeed, in states with a particular fondness for imprisoning citizens, such as California, the policy may have done more harm than good…
However we explain it, of course, this is great news for America. But it still makes one wonder, what’s going on? And what does this phenomena do to liberal theories about the relation between economics and crime, or to Christian Right theories about immorality and the decline of America?