Crime data forces rethink of economic link

By Cindy Merrick

Should we be surprised to find that, in these tough economic times, crime rates continue to fall steadily? Two key reports this year have shown that violent crime in America continues to retreat. In May, the FBI released its annual crime statistics for 2009, which showed “violent crime” offenses – murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault – were 5.3 percent lower than the rates from 2008. And in October, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published the results of at 10-year study that showed a decline in violent crime victimization from 19.3 to 17.1 persons per 1,000. Interestingly, much of the reporting on these new statistics has revolved around a presumed correlation between economic recession and a growth in crime rate.

Reflecting this presumption, The Wall Street Journal reported that “some gun owners cited an expected crime increase for the surge in weapons sales.” According to the The Huffington Post, the new crime numbers are “bucking a historical trend that links rising crime rates to economic woes.”  The Christian Science Monitor suggests that “recessions can be the perfect storm for crime,” before presenting the surprising evidence to the contrary. The discussion following these observations varies widely, however, with many interpretations from sociologists and criminal justice experts expressing doubt that any direct correlation exists.

Richard Rosenfeld from the University of Missouri suggests that difficult economic times in the past have corresponded, as they did in the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic, with “street level drug activity,” and that no such correspondence is found in this decade. He also suggested that economic stimulus funds given to the Justice Department, much of which was granted directly to police departments, allowed staffing to be unaffected by the economic downturn. Shawn Bushway from the University of Albany, was quoted as saying that “crime is not a cyclical beast, like business… It experiences big long ups and big long downs, unlike the up-down-up-down of the business cycle.” He went on to observe that crime was very high during the 1960s, when the “economy was booming.” Policing, in general, is credited by many experts as a primary force in crime reduction. Bushway says it is more proactive, and Rosenfeld says that crime trends are identified and addressed more quickly.

James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, says any connection between crime and economic downturn is essentially an indirect one, citing potential increases in crime when policing and crime-prevention programs receive less funding. He told The Washington Times: “People don’t go out and rob a bank because they’ve lost their job…The decision to pursue a life of crime is made independently of the economy.”

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