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Progress Watch

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. 

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Mr. Bratton has proved that "by handling the smaller crimes and dealing with the quality of the local environment, you prevent some of the bigger crimes," says Professor Burke.

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Communities have also become smarter at addressing crime. Social programs and services for youths have successfully targeted those hours after school when most youth crime is committed – though recent budget cutbacks could endanger those advances.

"There is evidence that … gang intervention programs involving the police and community leaders, after-school programs, [and] community outreach programs are having a positive effect," says Frederic Reamer, professor of social work at Rhode Island College in Providence.

Not all the steps taken against crime are uniformly seen as positive, though.

Mandatory-sentencing rules, such as "three strikes" laws that have spread to states including Cali­fornia, Flor­ida, and Pen­nsyl­vania since 1993, have had a positive impact on crime rates. But Fox of Northeastern suggests that the cost of incarcerating more Americans has other less-desirable effects.

"It certainly is true that while someone is incarcerated they can't be out on the streets doing crime," he says. "But at what cost to the education that could keep them from crime in the first place? We are robbing Peter – i.e., the education system – to pay Paul – the penal system. It's impossible to call that a clear victory."

There are additional theories as to why crime has dropped, theories that some see as insightful and others say are overstated. A 2001 study by economists John Donohue of Yale and Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago suggest that legalized abortion has reduced crime.

"These estimates suggest that legalized abortion is a primary explanation for the large drops in murder, property crime, and violent crime that our nation has experienced over the last decade," they wrote, arguing that the 1973 US Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade helped preclude thousands of unwanted fetuses from being born into less-than-ideal environments. "Indeed, legalized abortion may account for as much as one-half of overall crime reduction."

But Fox's own analysis shows that such conclusions discount the significant decline in serious crime among age groups that would have been born prior to that landmark court decision. "It's an interesting concept with some intuitive appeal, but I think they've overstated the case," says Fox.

Gangs still difficult to address

One area that remains a problem for law enforcement is gangs, several analysts say. That's primarily because stopping gang activity as it happens and jailing youths do not get at the heart of the problem. And now gangs are able to use the Internet as a recruiting tool.

"Gangs are now able to recruit with the click of a mouse rather than knock on doors," says Burke. "It's much easier for them to blanket the youth of their areas with the benefits for joining."

"In essence, there are no shortcuts to success when it comes to a community gang problem," says Joe Mollner, senior director of delinquency prevention for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "Arresting the violent offenders will help some, but unless there is a system in place to work with potential gang members who very likely will become violent offenders, we are not addressing the source of the problem."


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