Crime and Recessions, Cont.

Mona Charen's latest piece is on the "dodged bullet" of lower crime during a high-poverty recession. She repeats the conventional wisdom about crime increasing during periods of economic decline, and wonders why that isn't the case for this recession:

Here is a curious thing about that increasing poverty, though, and it’s something that has received very little press attention: It has not resulted in a higher crime rate. In fact, according to the FBI, even as unemployment was spiking during 2009, the rate of murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults declined by 4.4 percent from the previous year. As even the Washington Post acknowledged, the conventional wisdom for many decades has been that “economic trouble breeds lawlessness.”

As I wrote not too long ago, there isn't actually a clear connection between crime and economic performance; the Great Depression saw a significant drop in crime -- everyone is poor, so why would you steal? -- and while crime soared during recessionary periods in the 1970s and early 1990s, those increases owe themselves to drug violence -- heroin and crack-cocaine, respectively -- and not the economy. Charen, like most conservatives, attributes the lower crime rates to a larger prison population and improved police work, but it's also worth considering the fact of our aging population -- the late teens to mid-twenties are peak years for criminal activity -- an end to the crack epidemic, and the strong positive feedback loop that is built into lower crime rates.

One last thing: I found it interesting that Charen concluded her column on this note:

I, for one, believed a decade ago that the rising numbers of fatherless young men would cause crime rates to increase despite higher rates of incarceration and better policing. The reverse happened. And while we can be grateful for the reduction in crime, we cannot lose sight of the purchase price — 2.3 million Americans behind bars, thousands of children in foster care, and $70 billion spent on corrections.

Over the last decade, as crime rates have fallen, criminal-justice issues have gradually moved away from the realm of simple partisan politics, and into the realm of "pressing concerns for all Americans." As Adam noted a few weeks ago, a recent Pew survey showed "a surprising level of agreement among Americans that the prison system is too big, too costly, and too focused on nonviolent offenders." And while "tough on crime" has remained the "default bipartisan position" for many politicians, it seems that the public is moving toward a far more nuanced view of crime and corrections.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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