Despite hardship, lawbreaking falls
Lower crime rates contradict expectations
WASHINGTON – High unemployment. More folks on food stamps. Fewer owning their homes. Yet for all the signs of recession, something is missing: more crime.
Experts are scratching their heads over why crime has ebbed so far during this recession, making it different from other economic downturns of the past half-century. Early guesses include jobless folks at home keeping closer watch for thieves, or the American population just getting older – and older people commit fewer crimes.
Preliminary FBI crime figures for the first half of 2009 show crime falling across the country, even at a time of high unemployment, foreclosures and layoffs. Most surprisingly, murder and manslaughter fell 10 percent for the first half of the year.
“That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied crime trends.
Rosenfeld said he did not expect the 10 percent drop in killings to be sustained over the entire year, as more data is reported. But he said the broad declines are exceptional, given that past recessions stretching to the 1950s have boosted crime rates.
Bill Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, said the decrease comes from major police departments closely tracking developing crime patterns.
“Police have gotten much better at analyzing numbers and responding quickly,” said Bratton, now chairman of Altegrity Security Consulting, a private security firm based in Virginia. “Los Angeles has been in an economic downturn almost two years ahead of the country and is now in its eighth straight year of crime decline.”
In times of recession, property crimes, in particular, are expected to rise.
Overall, property crimes fell by 6.1 percent, and violent crimes by 4.4 percent, according to the six-month data collected by the FBI. Crime rates haven’t been this low since the 1960s, and are nowhere near the peak reached in the early 1990s.
Rosenfeld said there are several possible explanations, including that extended unemployment benefits, food stamps, and other government-driven economic stimulus “have cushioned and delayed for many people the big blows that come from a recession.”
Those benefits will have to run out eventually, he cautioned.
Another possible factor is that with more people home from work, it is harder for burglars to break into a home or apartment unnoticed by neighbors, he said. Rosenfeld said another possibility is that big cities’ technology-driven, “smart policing” efforts are driving down national rates.
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