High unemployment, continuing layoffs, mounting debt, record foreclosures, tight household budgets.
Recessions can be the perfect storm for crime.
Yet preliminary crime figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 2009 show that the crime rate is falling across America, across all categories. Violent crime was down 5.5 percent and property crime down 4.9 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to FBI statistics released Monday.
In fact, crime in every category decreased, says FBI spokesman Bill Carter. Murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault all declined in 2009, he said. Robbery – which tends to boom in bust times – dropped 8.1 percent.
Which has a lot of criminologists scratching their heads.
“In theory, in times of recession, crime rates go up,” says Ted Kirkpatrick, co-director of Justiceworks, a crime and justice research group at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Tight finances, Mr. Kirkpatrick explains, tend to boost property crime and robberies, and financial stress often produces more domestic violence.
“In fact, that hasn’t been the case,” he says. “We’ve seen a pretty dramatic decline in crime rates.”
Why is crime down, in spite of the recession? Criminologists have a number of theories to explain the decline.
First, says Shawn Bushway, a professor of criminal justice at the University at Albany in New York, it’s important to recognize that crime has been on a downward trend for more than a decade. The recession’s short-term effects may have been overwhelmed by the longer-term factors that have produced the long, steady decline in crime.
“Crime is not a cyclical beast, like business,” Mr. Bushway says. “It experiences big long ups and big long downs, unlike the up-down-up-down of the business cycle.” He adds, “Could that overall downward trend swamp what’s going on with the business cycle? Sure.”
There’s a lot more to crime trends than whether the economy is booming or not, Bushway says.
“Crime went up a lot in the ’60s – when the economy was booming,” he says. “That had to do with social institutions, not the economy.”
In this case, a number of other factors might be pushing crime down, even as the recession encourages more criminal activity. Here are the key reasons cited by three criminologists interviewed for this article:
The theory goes: The more criminals are put in jail, the fewer are on the streets to commit crimes. The United States has reached a critical point at which a majority of violent crime offenders are behind bars, many criminologists say.
“By building more prisons and incarcerating more people, we’ve taken criminals off the street,” says Kirkpatrick of the University of New Hampshire.
“Policing is more proactive,” asserts Bushway of the University at Albany.
One way it's more proactive, Kirkpatrick says, is surveillance.
“It’s simply getting harder to commit crime,” he says. “Cameras are everywhere. Anytime there’s a bank robbery, you can bet there’s a number of pictures taken. That’s forcing illicit behavior underground where it's less detectable.”
Law enforcement has worked with community groups for years to develop programs to keep youths engaged, provide them outlets, and combat crime. Those efforts may finally be paying off, criminologists say.
“Efforts to attend to the needs of young offenders through community outreach programs has helped,” Kirkpatrick says. "The more attention we pay in our communities to kids at risk, the better.”
One factor contributing to the downward trend in crime may be simple demographics: Young people commit the most crime, and young people make up a smaller percentage of society now.
“Median age has increased rather dramatically in last 25 years,” Bushway says. “Crime tends to be committed by young folks.”
The median age in the US has reached its highest point ever at 36.7 years, according to a 2010 estimate by the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook. This is up from 35.3 years in 2000 and 32.9 years in 1990, according to census figures.
Some theories suggest that the more government support an individual can receive – through unemployment benefits, food stamps, controlled rent, and other forms of welfare – the less he or she may be encouraged to commit financial- or stress-motivated crime.
The government’s stepped-up aid during this recession may have had an effect on crime, says Bushway. “The extension of unemployment benefits probably held off crime,” he says.
In at least one way, the recession may have actually staved off property crime, says Richard Rosenfeld, president of the American Society of Criminology and a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
“During severe recessions like the current one, with chronically high unemployment rates, more people are at home and can act as guardians for their home,” Mr. Rosenfeld says. “That leads to a decline in residential burglaries.”
Furthermore, people have less cash and valuables on hand and in their homes now, making them less-attractive targets, he says.
Will crime rates change as the US climbs out of recession? Probably, but they won’t necessarily be tied to any recession-related factors, Bushway says.
“[The crime rate] has been leveling off lately following a long, slow decline,” he says. “What’s striking is it’s looking like it might start going up. If I can predict anything, it’s going to go up again.”