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Surprising Explanations For Crime Drop

by Jeff Elliott

Some of crime drop could lie in strict definition of "serious" crime
Crime rates for both violent and property crimes are down, and you can credit the booming economy of the '90s. Or the availability of abortion services. Or the aging of the baby boomer generation. Or maybe, the increase in drug trafficking crimes.

According to FBI statistics, the national murder rates has fallen to its lowest level since 1969, and burglary rates have decreased by a third since 1980.

Part of the reason, says Dr. Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology at Penn State, is because would-be burglars have been turning to substitute crimes such as thefts from cars (and thefts OF cars) as well as credit card fraud and writing bad checks. These crimes are not among the seven "serious" offenses that make up the Crime Index: homicide, aggravated assault, forcible rape, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft.

"What appears to have happened is a substitution effect where the decline in an 'index' or serious crime like burglary is made at the expense of an increase in non-index crimes such as drug violations, fraud offenses and theft from motor vehicles," Steffensmeier notes.

No connection to growing prison population
The key shift in the criminal market seems, however, to be toward drug trafficking. Dealing in drugs, with all its inherent risks, still requires less skill and physical agility than burglary, says Steffensmeier. "Another important factor in the decline of burglary is supply and demand within the stolen property market," Steffensmeier says. "The abundance of popular consumer items such as televisions, VCRs and cameras have cut demand for stolen goods, causing street prices for many stolen household goods to also drop."

Steffensmeier dismisses claims that the crime drop is linked to the increased number of people imprisoned.

"The rise in incarceration rates extends backwards at least into the late 1970s and thus predates the 1990s drop in crime, it appears unlikely that higher imprisonment rates explain much, if any, of the recent drop in crime, just as they don't account for its rise in the late 1980s."

More important, he says, is attention to intervention programs. "These involve not only community policing, prosecution and mobilization but youth and gang programs, targeting of crime 'hot spots,' drug courts with diversion to treatment, in- and after-school programs, juvenile curfews, conflict resolution classes and community-based alternatives to incarceration."

Says Steffensmeier, "Another major factor here is the combined aging and cultural dominance of the baby boomers, now entering their forties and fifties. These now make up 30 percent of the population, and they head nearly 4 in 10 households. This enormous, accumulating age shift has now reached the threshold or 'critical mass' stage needed to trigger an en masse change in our cultural values and collective conscience." This has led to greater civility and a lesser emphasis on narcissistic, materialistic values, he says. People, especially males, are most crime-prone in their late teens and early twenties, and the shrinking numbers in this age group might seem to be one cause of the reduced crime rate. This was certainly true during the the Reagan and Bush era, according to Steffensmeier.

But that explanation falls apart once you examine the Clinton Nineties, he says. "Even when the figures are adjusted for decreases in the most crime-prone age groups, there was still a significant drop in crime under Clinton. This suggests that, at least to some degree, crime rate declines were due to more basic changes in society."

on Donohue - Levitt paper
Although Steffensmeier's analysis raises important questions about the drop in crime rates, no newspaper or wire service wrote about the story. One reason might be that the research was overshadowed by another crime statistic analysis announced the same day, August 8.

Dr. John Donohue III of Stanford Law School and economist Dr. Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago claimed that the crime drop was caused by the availabilty of legalized abortion.

Their analysis implies that children who would have been at risk of turning to crime were simply never born.

According to the pair, the drop in crime lagged twenty years behind the increase of legal abortion. The states that first made abortion legal also were the first to find a drop in crime.

Reactions to their controversial statements were mixed. Several nationally syndicated columnists opined in either support and dismay. Dr. David J. Garrow, a historian at Emory University and author of a history of the abortion debate, called the economists' theory "interesting and original," But told the New York Times that he questioned the researchers' knowledge of abortion history and was skeptical of the usefulness of the report.

The paper by Donohue and Levitt has not been published or reviewed by experts in the field. By contrast, Steffensmeier's analysis was presented Aug. 9 at the American Sociological Association meeting and appears in the August issue of the Journal Of Research In Crime And Delinquency. His co-author was Miles D. Harer, research analyst with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Penn State articles written by Paul Blaum contributed to this report

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Albion Monitor August 21, 1999 (

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