By Request: Crime and Recession

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"By Request: Crime and Recession"

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Jerrod asks:

Matt, among those of us who (like you) appreciate big cities, I’ve heard some people fretting that we’re about to re-enter a time when economic conditions make cities so full of crime that they are nearly unlivable. How do we avoid that sort of thing happening again like it did for a while there in the 1970s?

I think this is worth worrying about. One thing we know about crime is that when wages and employment levels for low-skill workers are high, crime goes down. Another is that mass incarceration works — increase the number of beds in prison and the number of sentence-years handed out and the crime rate drops. But the first of these is the reverse of what happens in a recession, and the second we’ve already pushed well past the limit of cost-effectiveness (see here) and it’s inconceivable to me that you could actually push this far enough to compensate for the declining economy in the context of declining state budgets.

At the same time, when it comes to crime you have a lot of cyclical effects. Once a neighborhood reaches a “slum equilibrium” it becomes very difficult to pull out of it. People don’t walk around so there are no “eyes on the street.” Stores find it hard to stay in business, so there are few jobs. The most together families tend to move away. A general atmosphere of disarray may, itself, contribute to increasing levels of criminality (per “broken windows” theory), and as the neighborhood becomes poorer and less desirable it loses political clout which makes all the problems worse. The good news, such as it is, for cities is that there’s reason to believe that the coming decline will see more in the way of the slumification of the exurbs than it will re-slumification of “transitional” neighborhoods in comeback cities. For example, when I was growing up there were unsafe areas in the East Village that I think have now clearly passed into a safe “non-slum” equilibrium with plenty of businesses open and eyes on the street, where if real estate prices fall there are plenty of non-poor people who’d be eager to take up the slack.

But “things may be worse elsewhere” isn’t a responsible policy response for mayors and city councils. One thing these considerations underscore is the vital importance of state and local fiscal aid as probably the primary federal recession-fighting policy. You don’t want to see cities layoff off cops, eliminating overtime, and delaying new hires. What you want to see is just the reverse — hiring and salaries staying as they have been, and recruiting well-qualified officers getting easier as the private sector job market looks bleak. On top of that, you need smart police policies. William Bratton had a lot of success as Police Commissioner in Boston. Then again as Police Commissioner in New York. And then again as Police Commissioner in Los Angeles. Probably your can’t just hire him, but perhaps he could recommend someone. Ultimately, though, many cities (Washington, DC among them) really need to expand the size of their policy force if they want to increase the effectiveness of their policing and that’s hard to do in the current economic climate.

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