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Recession gives rise to new drop in crime

  • Written by Jason Johnson
New reports are showing that our conventional wisdom about crime may be way off, because in the worst and longest recession in 60 years, America is seeing an all time low in crime.
 Dr. Jason Johnson

Conventional wisdom has always said that crime and poverty are related to each other. The more poor people you have, the more people out of work, or looking for it, the more crimes you’re going to have.

Interestingly there is a root to that logic that also makes criminals less evil and less problematic for society. Crime is based on “need” not “greed”. If you’re poor, you’re stealing things because you lack the basic necessities in life, as opposed to stealing just because you want something.

However, new reports are showing that our conventional wisdom about crime may be way off, because quiet as it’s kept, in the worst and longest recession in 60 years, America is seeing an all time low in crime.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has just released a new report surveying violent crime victims in the United States. The result? In 2008 there was the lowest amount of violent and property crime in the United States since 1973 when the surveys began.

The FBI’s Annual Crime Report showed that violent crime in the United States decreased by 6.2 percent nationwide in the first half of 2010 alone. The lowest drops in crime have come in the South, where rape, armed robbery and the like have dropped by 7.8 percent, with 7.2 percent drops in the Midwest and the West. Only the Northeast saw a negligible change with only a .2 percent drop in crime.

So the question on everyone’s mind is where has all this crime gone?

Again, if we go back to conventional wisdom, these changes, which have been gradual but consistent since the mid-90’s, don’t make any sense. The American economy is in the gutter, people by the thousands are living in tent cities across the United States due to the mortgage crisis. Unemployment is still higher than anyone in the past two generations remembers and while profits have been going on hiring has still been slow to come.

Shouldn’t people be rioting in the streets? Shouldn’t we be seeing Wal-Marts getting tipped over as men and women desperate for food and basic needs start to get desperate? Since this has not been happening, perhaps it is time that we honestly evaluate just how we look at American crime and it’s causes in general.

There are three main theories why crime occurs in the United States: moral, environmental or economic.

The moral argument has always been that criminals are just morally deficient men and women, people who are just prone to crime. This is a theory promoted by many conservatives over the years.

The environmental argument gained steam in the 1970’s through the 1980’s as big city governments began to realize that if a neighborhood is not well maintained, the situation breeds crime. Broken windows and graffiti don’t cause armed robbery. But when people see their neighborhood is in bad shape, has poor city services and police protection they are less invested in stopping or standing up to crime.

The last theory is what was mentioned earlier, crime is primarily a result of need and poverty. I propose a fourth theory, however, to explain the American crime rate that’s dropping like a rock over the last few years: Access and technology.

Increasing social and class stratification in the United States means that more and more poor people are surrounded by just poor people. Usually crime occurs when someone perceives they have a chance to gain something from someone who has more. Well, when this extended recession has more or less created a flat-Earth economic state for the country the difference in what your neighbor has and you have isn’t enough to make robbing them worth it.

Next, technology has played a roll in these drooping crime rates as well. Increasingly mobile phone technology, computers, and even street cameras are making it easier to catch criminals, or at least scare them off. It’s one thing to outsmart a dusty old 1987 security camera to knock over a late night bodega, but when your picture gets taken by the shop owner, his wife, and 3 kids standing outside on your way out there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get caught. Unless you want to add a multiple homicide rap to your charges, there are going to be witnesses and they’re going to have video of your crime.

America still has the most violent crime of any first world nation across the globe, but at least for now it’s been on the decline. Maybe that’s one positive outcome of the recession: it’s safer to walk the streets when all your neighbors are just as broke as you.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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