FBI statistics show that 2009 was a big down year for crime, continuing the trend for the past 15 years:
Falling crime amidst a recession is described by some as some kind of paradox, but as Jamelle Bouie laid out earlier this week there’s never been a historical association between macroeconomic performance and crime rates. One way to think about it is this. It’s true that crime is generally associated with communities that contain a lot of poor people. But if people in general becoming poorer led to higher crime, then Portugal (or for that matter New Zealand) would be much more violent than the United States, which is clearly not the case.
Mark Kleiman offers what I think is a compelling hypothesis:
One explanation that appeals to me is that there’s a strong positive feedback built in to crime rates; the fewer crimes, the more cops and the more cells per crime, so crime declines and crime increases both tend to feed on themselves.
There are likely also other sources of positive feedback. Competition between rival drug gangs can exist at a lower-violence or higher-violence equilibrium.
This is all one reason why I think European voters are correct to be alarmed by rising crime in many countries on the other side of the Atlantic. The mere fact that the level of violence continues to be fairly low shouldn’t give people false comfort. Each increase in crime increases the burden on the police, the judiciary, and the penal system and makes it less effective at controlling future crime. And as the United States learned in the seventies and eighties, once crime’s spiked it’s quite difficult to bring it down again. Anti-crime politics is frequently paired with ugly racial or ethnic animosities, which is unfortunate, but it’s a very important policy issue nonetheless.
Indeed, in the US I think it’s an aspect of inequality that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Part of what happens when you occupy the low rungs on the income ladder is that you can only afford to live in the highest-crime areas. That’s a meaningful drag on quality of life, but it’s also a pretty pure positional thing. Merely decreasing income dispersal doesn’t do much to solve it, you need to actually make progress on bringing down the overall quantity of crime and ensuring that progress is made even in the poorest cities and neighborhoods.