Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Crime is down, but why? (Guest Editorial of The Desert Dispatch)

The National Crime Victimization Survey released Sunday shows that both property crimes and violent crimes other than homicide were again at a 30-year low in 2003. That is good news for all.
What is frustrating is that while plenty of people have theories about why crime rates go up or down, most of the theories are full of exceptions and the links between cause and effect vary in directness and intensity.
The lesson for citizens is that most of those attempting to take credit for reduced crime rates had little or nothing to do with it. And those who claim to hold the key to reducing crime further are probably talking through their hats.
Gilbert Geis, professor emeritus in criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, said the Victimization Survey, done by the Department of Justice, is generally more reliable than the FBI crime survey, because it is based on interviews and relatively uniform criteria, and so captures crimes that are not reported to the police.
The best general indicator is homicide (which has declined nationally since 1993 as well), because most dead bodies come to the attention of the police and can be counted fairly accurately.
As to why crime has declined steadily since 1993, most criminologists are more in the dark than they like to let on.
There's the demographic theory, that most crimes are committed by young men aged 18-24 and the tendency to commit crime declines as people get older. But the percentage of people in that age group hasn't declined dramatically over the past 120 years.
There's the economic theory, that crime declines when the economy improves. But the U.S. has had a stock market bubble burst and a mild recession in the last few years, and the crime rate has continued to decline. Professor Geis told us that in some cases, increased unemployment actually means closer supervision for young people who might be crime-prone, because a parent is at home. But he acknowledges that the data are not conclusive.
There's virtually no evidence that tougher gun-control laws reduce crime (and some evidence the other way). And, in fact, we haven't seen progressively tougher gun control laws over the last 10 years; the two sides have been more or less at a stalemate.
That leaves stiffer sentencing laws. Mr. Geis believes there is some evidence that tougher sentencing laws do keep some people who would be committing crimes off the streets for extended periods. But it is an expensive way to go and keeps people who wouldn't be committing new crimes locked up as well.
Perhaps we don't have to understand all the whys to be grateful crime has declined.
But even as we encourage experts to keep trying to find the reasons, we should be skeptical of those who claim they have already discovered them.From Desert Dispatch.
The Desert Dispatch is a daily newspaper serving the communities of Barstow, Dagget, Fort Irwin, Hinkley, Lenwood, Newberry Springs and Yermo.


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