US crime rate at lowest point in decades. Why America is safer now.
The crime rate for serious crimes, including murder, rape, and assault, has dropped significantly since the early 1990s in part because of changes in technology and policing, experts say.
The last time the crime rate for serious crime – murder, rape, robbery, assault – fell to these levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807.Skip to next paragraph
That was 1963.
In the past 20 years, for instance, the murder rate in the United States has dropped by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009. Meanwhile, robberies were down 10 percent in 2010 from the year before and 8 percent in 2009.
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The declines are not just a blip, say criminologists. Rather, they are the result of a host of changes that have fundamentally reversed the high-crime trends of the 1980s. And these changes have taken hold to such a degree that the drop in crime continued despite the recent recession.
Because the pattern "transcends cities and US regions, we can safely say crime is down," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "We are indeed a safer nation than 20 years ago."
He and others give four main reasons for the decline:
- Increased incarceration, including longer sentences, that keeps more criminals off the streets.
- Improved law enforcement strategies, including advances in computer analysis and innovative technology.
- The waning of the crack cocaine epidemic that soared from 1984 to 1990, which made cocaine cheaply available in cities across the US.
- The graying of America characterized by the fastest-growing segment of the US population – baby boomers – passing the age of 50.
The data point to a persistent perception gap among Americans. Despite strong evidence of crime dropping over recent decades, the public sees the reverse. "Recent Gallup polls have found that citizens overwhelmingly feel crime is going up even though it is not," says Professor Fox. "This is because of the growth of crime shows and the way that TV spotlights the emotional. One case of a random, horrific shooting shown repeatedly on TV has more visceral effect than all the statistics printed in a newspaper."
In many police departments across the US, changes during the past decade or more are hard to overstate, say many law enforcement experts.
Technology has given detectives powerful new tools with which to analyze blood and DNA samples or other forensic evidence, for instance.
Computerized "hot spot" crime mapping has also helped police connect dots in ways that were more difficult before.
From pushpins to databases
"We used to put pins on a map to figure out what the patterns were and where to concentrate our limited resources," says Tod Burke, a former police officer in Maryland who now teaches criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia. "Now we have databases and computers. It's really gotten a lot more sophisticated."
Beyond technology, law enforcement personnel are much better educated and trained today than ever before, adds John Paitakes, professor of criminal justice at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. They've also benefited from leaders like William Bratton, who recast policing in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles by applying the "broken window" theory posited by social scientist James Q. Wilson in 1982. The theory held that run-down and vandalized areas were more prone to serious crime than were areas kept in better order.