A candidate for Spokane County sheriff has offered a provocative explanation for a drop in the U.S. crime rate starting in the early 1990s: legalized abortion.
Douglas Orr, a Spokane police detective running as a Republican, is seeking to unseat Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich in this year’s election.
In December 2012, Orr told the Rotary Club of Spokane that a hypothesis advanced in academic circles in 2001 attributes the drop in the crime rate to legal abortions.
“Those people that we didn’t want would have been predisposed to crime. That’s the theory,” Orr told the lunch meeting.
He went on to say there wasn’t much other academic study to confirm the hypothesis, “but still that’s something we have to respect,” Orr told the group.
Economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt originally promoted the hypothesis in an academic paper, but the idea found its way into Levitt’s 2005 book, “Freakonomics.” Donohue and Levitt argue that the drop in crime starting in 1992 came at the same time that children who were not born would have been out committing crimes.
Criminologists have since dismissed the hypothesis, pointing out that it did not consider increases in funding for law enforcement or the incarceration rate. It also ignored the crack cocaine epidemic in urban areas as well as the broader war on drugs. Other societal changes would affect the crime rate, too, criminologists say.
But Orr maintained in an interview last week that legalizing abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case accounts for part of the drop.
“I give it just as much weight as I do the other ideas,” Orr said. “It accounts for some of the changes.”
Orr said he brought up the subject before the Rotary group to get the attention of his audience right after he was introduced.
Knezovich said people in Spokane County “should be chilled by somebody who wants to hold this office who remotely thinks things like this.”
Orr holds a doctorate in criminal justice from Washington State University, has taught in the field and given talks at professional meetings. For the past eight years, he has served as a detective in the city’s sexual assault unit.
He describes himself as a conservative Republican who is opposed to abortion.
Orr acknowledged that changes in birth rates and other factors contributed to the drop in crime.
Violent crime peaked in 1991 at 758 crimes per 100,000 U.S. residents. Property crime also peaked in 1991 at 5,140 crimes per 100,000 residents.
The crime rate has fallen dramatically since then.
Zachary Hamilton, an assistant professor in criminal justice at Washington State University, called the abortion hypothesis “a simplistic notion that should not be given much credibility.”
“It’s really weird,” he said.
“There are lots of things that impact the crime rate,” Hamilton said.