The latest statistics demonstrate that New York City’s Draconian stop-and-frisk policy has not been the cause for a precipitous drop in the rate of violent crime in the five boroughs. Even after NYC’s finest curtailed stop-and-frisk without cause, crime rates continued to plummet.
I’ve been meaning for some time to analyze why crime rates have dropped and continue to drop across the United States, but especially in urban areas outside of Chicago. Despite the right’s wails and lamentations about unsafe communities, most of us live in far safer places than we did a decade or two ago. Interestingly enough, the crime rate is down most precipitously in that modern Sodom or Gomorrah, the Big Not-So-Rotten Apple.
Why has crime decreased?
First, I want to discount the idea that crime fell as a result of increased incarceration of individuals, victims to the many 3-strikes-you’re-out and anti-crack laws passed in the late '70s and '80s. We have filled our prisons with a bunch of people—black males to a large extent—who don’t deserve to be incarcerated. All they have done is minor kid’s stuff or drugs. We have the highest incarceration rate in the western world and yet we still have the highest rate of violent crimes. No doubt, some small percentage of those locked up for years for tooting crack might have committed future crimes, but some percentage of those locked up learned criminal ways in prison and became lost to society. I’m thinking the net effect disproves the idea that locking more people up than any other industrialized nation led to a drop in crimes rates.
One of the gun lobby’s many fantasies is that the increase in open carry and other gun rights leads to a decrease in crime, because the criminals won’t want to run into someone who would shoot back. This absurd claim crumbles to lies as soon as we look at the facts: Forget that the incidents of citizens stopping criminals by pulling out their gun are extremely rare. Consider that the higher the prevalence of guns in any country in the world, the higher the rate of deaths and injuries from guns in that country. More guns equal more violent deaths. Also consider the fact that while there are more guns out there now, fewer households own guns today than 20 years ago, continuing a trend that is more than 50 years old now. Fewer people own more guns. I think it’s likely that the decline in gun owners may have led to a drop in crime.
So far, I’ve consider some bogus arguments conservatives make about the drop in crime. Now let’s take a look at three legitimate arguments which I think have been factors in the continued drop in crime, but not any as the primary cause.
Let’s start with the end of the use of lead paint: This theory goes that crime increased soon after we started using lead-based paint in apartment buildings, because children would eat the paint chips and suffer one or more of the side effects, which include learning disabilities resulting in decreased intelligence, attention deficit disorder and behavior issues, all predictors of criminal behavior. Once we stopped using lead paint, the crime rate went down (even thought the rate of diagnosing ADD continues to soar). It’s a very believable theory backed by evidence that suggests but does not prove causality. Not enough research has done on the affect of lead paint on human adherence to social norms, but the explanation does sound plausible.
We can also look at the growth of dispute resolution programs in the schools as another factor in lowering the rate of crime. I think it was some time in the '80s when these programs began, first in urban areas. Having sixth grade kids mentor first-graders, throwing middle school kids in with high schoolers, bringing together groups of students from different schools to talk about race, religion and other hate issues, the growth in organized sports leagues—all of this additional socialization had to turn many marginal children away from crime.
My own pet theory is that the growth of video game play helped to lower the crime rate. The idea is that people work out their anger and anti-social urges playing Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty: Black Ops. So while I despair that most video games tend to infantilize young men, preventing their ideas and thought processes to mature, I do think that the games have kept many young men busy and out of trouble.
I do reject one non-conservative theory: A professor has postulated that the legalization of abortion has resulted in fewer unwanted children born and that unwanted children commit more crimes. The problem with this theory is that the introduction of birth control pills assuredly prevented the birth of more children than did the legalization of abortion. But the introduction of the pill paralleled the increase in the crime rate in the 1960s and early '70s, at least at first.
Lead paint, growth in socialization programs and video games all played a role in the decrease in crime, without being the main cause. Sociologists and historians who calculate crime rates in many cultures through centuries report that the rate of crime is primarily a function of the number of 16-29 year old males in the population. Most crime is committed by young men, so the higher percentage of young males in the population, the higher the crime rate.
The facts certainly match this theory until about 2003. When the Baby Boom turned 16, crime rates started to soar. Males aged 16-29 represented the largest percentage of our population in our nation’s history. When Generation X—otherwise known as the Baby Bust—started to turn 16 and Baby Boomers started turning middle-aged, crime rates started dropping. Now the birth rate increased again with the Millennial generation (AKA Generation Y, although judging from the high achievements of its female members, maybe Generation Non-Y is a better moniker!). But when the Millennials started turning 16, the crime rate did not pick up again.
My thought is that the impact of the Millennials on the overall population is far less than that of the truly outsized Baby Boom generation. So while we have more 16-29 year old males, this demographic segment is not as great a percentage of the whole as it was at the height of Boomer young adulthood. The end of lead paint, greater socialization, the growth of video games, a decline in gun ownership and other factors still unidentified all combined to keep the crime rate going down. By this theory, if the Millennials were as large a factor as the Baby Boom generation had been, the crime rate might still not have risen, but not to Boomer levels because of these additional factors.