When the economy goes down, we expect crime to go up. The logic is clear enough. Opportunities in the legitimate economy shrink and unemployed persons find crime more attractive.
The current recession does not fit that pattern. Instead of rising, crime rates have actually fallen. Why is crime not going up?
According to a 2009 report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the notion that crime rises in recessions and falls during economic booms is a myth. From one point of view, this conclusion is fairly obvious, when one considers that most crime rates marched steadily up the page for much of the 20th century, a period of unprecedented economic growth.
The report shows that crime rates essentially ignore recessions, neither going up nor down in response but continuing whatever trend they had been on. The authors also point out that when they are incarcerated, the majority of criminals are actually in gainful employment.
During 2009, the second year of the recession, crime rates around the country fell noticeably. This fall in crime is part of a trend of reduced criminal activity that stretches back almost two decades, a fact that newspaper journalists like to ignore as it sells no papers.
Why crime is declining over the long haul
In all probability, several factors are responsible:
1.The population is aging (from median age 30 in 1980 to 36.8 in 2008) and older people commit fewer crimes.
2. A large number of offenders has been incarcerated with the total number increasing from fewer than 2 millions in 2000 to 2.4 millions in 2008. Even if incarceration does not prevent re-offending, it reduces the time during which a career criminal is active.
3. The number of people with college degrees is increasing and educated people are less likely to commit crimes.
Why crime is declining in this recession.
Instead of increasing crime, recession could actually reduce it:
1. Anecdotally, fewer illegals are crossing the borders because there is no longer so much work for them - an example of how recessions can reduce crime. This group has high crime rates because more of them are young adult males.
2. Law enforcement personnel suspect that unemployed people spending more time at home add security making it more difficult to pull off property crimes during the day..
Let's hope for future good news on the crime front and that this is not the calm before the storm. Notwithstanding the recent spate of gang-related violence in New York, we should not expect the recession to produce a crime wave. It will, however, produce a spike in yellow journalism telling us that it is no longer safe to go out in the streets.