Crime Drop Puzzling

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An unprecedented fall in the serious crime rate in the US has everyone scrambling to take credit. However, there doesn’t seem to be any clear cause.

Those who are hard on crime claim it must be a result of harsher prison sentences and strict law enforcement. But that is criticized in turn by those who point out we’ve had longer sentences and mandatory minimums for more than a decade. Arrests still remain as high as ever. Others point out the fall in crack cocaine use, but overall drug abuse levels haven’t fallen. Users are just changing preferences to heroin and prescription drugs in some parts of the country and methamphetamine in others.

The statistics do show rates of violent crime are lower across the US though. The FBI reports that murder, rape and other serious crimes have reached a 48-year minimum.

Previous dips have been explained by sociologists in very odd ways. For example, a theory (since criticized) showed that legalized abortion led to a dramatic drop in crime. Abortion was legalized in the 1970s and homicides took a dip in the 1990s, just when those who were never born would have reached their early 20s. The idea was that less troubled kids from broken homes meant less crime. The view was challenged and now seems to be debunked. The point is that even with serious academic examination, these things don’t seem to have straightforward causes.

It’s the vacuum where an explanation ought to be that allows just about anyone to claim some credit. By linking your pet program to the new, surprisingly lower statistics, you are more likely to get support and funding. Beyond this political shell game though, we’d really like to understand where such dips come from. Is there something society can do to lower serious crime permanently? The only answer right now, in spite of the declarations, is we simply don’t know.

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