Think You Know What Causes Crime? You’re Probably Wrong.

This morning’s NY Times struggles with a seeming paradox.  The nation is in a recession and the national crime rate is down.

How is this possible?  Turns out no one can really explain it.  Lord knows there are a lot of proposed causes for upticks or decreases in crime rates.  Prison rates, active policing, low-profile immigrants,  improved public housing policy, better medicine, expanded gun ownership,  abortion, poverty levels, illegal drugs.

Sure everyone has their hunches.  Problem is, according to the article, no one has ever really effectively argued any of these supposed correlations into the realm of causation.

18 thoughts on “Think You Know What Causes Crime? You’re Probably Wrong.”


  1. I think the lesson here is that crime is an extremely complex phenomenon with no “magic bullets” that will solve it entirely. It’s not that crime isn’t caused by any of the various factors that social scientists study. Its that crime is caused by some complex interplay of ALL of those factors.

    1. Indeed. I found it particularly interesting, since it challenges the entire political spectrum for having “solutions” to crime.

      One odd thing about the article is that a couple of times, it mentions that “active policing” helps, but then moves on without quantifying, so your left thinking…”um ok. So active policing has been proven to help? or is it just another unproven method?”

      The other interesting thing is how Atlanta is used as an example. Essentially, the Times takes the city’s line: crime is down and it’s public perception that’s the problem. That won’t make Andisheh happy.

  2. I read the first half of the article and then skimmed the remainder from “One reason for the lack of answers is lack of money….” on.

    The following statements gave me pause/pondering:

    from New York to Los Angeles to Madison, Wis., major crimes, violent or not, are down between 7 percent and 22 percent over the same period last year

    — I’m assuming these are (violent) crimes against human beings. Would a property crime (vandalism, property damage, breaking-an(d)-entering) count as violent or not if there was no human victim present at the time of the crime? What if the perpetrator wasn’t successful? Attempted robbery/theft/burglary? When does that become property damage…if law enforcement cannot establish intent and the property owner doesn’t cite anything stolen?

    But crime was supposed to go up, not sharply down.

    –Maybe homicides have decreased. What about vehicular homicide/manslaughter…and accidents that are actually homicides-or-suicides-in-disguise? (I’ll concede to possibly watching too many 48 Hours Mystery shows and thus am thinking too hypothetically ^O^).

    The economy, which seems as if it should be fundamental, has never been a good predictor; the Prohibition era was far more violent than the Great Depression.

    –I found this statement more “interesting” or “fascinating” than “what?!”

    There is the abortion theory, which proposes that legalized abortion reduced the number of unwanted children who turned to a life of crime. It’s a seductive explanation for United States data, but it does not bear out in other countries that legalized abortion in the 1970s, said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

    –What?! “Seductive” ? The fewer people there are, the lower the possibility there is that one of them will break the law. (I hope I worded that correctly). In other words, if there are 45 people in a room, the possibility and the probability that any of them might break the law is higher than if there were only twelve or seven people in the room. Of course, you could have five people in a room and all of them would break the law.

    There is the gun theory, which posits that expanded gun ownership rights have deterred criminals who now must consider whether their victims are armed. But that does not explain the most significant decline in the country, in New York City, where gun ownership is low, said Mr. Zimring…,

    –This one kind of makes sense…Even if the actual numbers of law-abiding, gun-owners in NYC is low, it’s the perceived number or presence of gun-owners that may deter a percentage of perpetrators from committing a crime.

    I’d like to know what John Walsh and the rest of the America’s Most Wanted crew have to say about the reported decline in crime rate.

    1. The fewer people there are, the lower the possibility there is that one of them will break the law. (I hope I worded that correctly).

      Not really. The abortion theory goes more like: the fewer unwanted babies there are, the lower the crime rate, years later. The reason: unwanted babies are more likely to grow up to become criminals.

    2. “The fewer people there are, the lower the possibility there is that one of them will break the law.” -sitting pugs

      But the other part of the theory is that these aborted fetuses would have been born to mothers, most likely single, who didn’t really want them. Such a toxic family situation would, the theory goes, be more likely to breed criminals. The book “Freakonomics” explains the theory in some detail.
      As for it sounding like eugenics, that is a slippery slope type fallacy. Abortion has been legal for almost 40 years and I’m not aware of a single one that has been performed against a woman’s will.
      One reason for the drop in violent I haven’t seen mentioned here is the wide-spread use of mandatory sentences for repeat violent offenders. This has certainly played a role.

  3. Apologies or not, I’m afraid I can’t follow the bold/not bold, italic/not italic, dash, parentheses, emoticon and ellipsis laden comment.

    1. The italicized segments were from the NYT article. My own thoughts are preceded by a dash. I had meant to only bold certain words for emphasis; unfortunately, I typed too quickly and didn’t check to see I had correctly formatted the words I had meant to bold.

      Thus, half of my original comment was bolded.

  4. I always find the statistics used in most of these articles suspect. I recall once looking at the statistics for what country had lowest murder rate and found it was Egypt. I was surprised to say the least.
    When I inquired to a knowledgeable person about this they just laughed and said of course it’s the lowest, they just don’t report it.
    In a lot of cities crime statistics bend to the will of the chamber of commerce.

    1. While I can see how that could easily be true in many more totalitarian gov’ts, I think it’s quite a stretch to say “What happens in Egypt, happens in U.S. cities.”

      Besides, if this were true and the chamber had so much sway, then why would the crime rate ever go up anywhere?

  5. The whole “perception of crime” thing is an unsurprisingly tone deaf response from Franklin/Pennington that’s sort of half true. There isn’t for the most part a major uptick in overall crime rates, but there has been a significant uptick in people kicking in doors and stealing stuff. That’s unnerving because you wonder if you’re going to be home when someone tries to get your stuff. I live in EAV and there is feeling it will inevitably happen to me one day, and that I’m just waiting my turn. I don’t allow that feeling to dictate how I go about my business day-to-day, but I can imagine it’s terrifying for some people. And if it does happen to me eventually, that feeling may then be impossible to ignore.

    You factor that unnerved feeling in with a couple of high profile crimes and the usual bevy of horrible stuff that happens in any city, and you’ve got yourself a panic. Everything is amplified. Thing is, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy eventually, so it’s not like Pennington/Franklin are off the hook just because they’re half right.

    1. Rusty makes a point that seems to be ignored in most pontificating about crime rates. The rationale and reasoning of behind crime rate discussions doesn’t seem to address the perception/reality issues fairly.

      For instance, the murder rate could go to zero or overall crime stats could go way down, but if at the same time, home invasions or flat-screen thefts via break-n-enter go up in residential neighborhoods, both the perception and the reality is that regular folks are more likely become a crime victim despite lower crime rate statistics.

  6. The author of the NYTimes story, Shaila Dewan, is an Atlanta resident.

    As long as we’re theorizing about crime — here’s are somes areas I want someone with a research grant to look at: is there a measurable correlation between the income of crime victims and “perception of crime” in a city? is the “perception of crime” higher in Atlanta than it was in 2002 because new city residents who moved here from lower crime areas have a lower tolerance for crime than people who have lived in the city longer?

    1. That’s a really good point. I have no answers, but that would be an interesting analysis.

    2. Certainly, you can measure income. But can you measure perception of crime?

      It seems to me that quantifying perception is too subjective to yield meaningful theories. But then again, it is only a theory.

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