Friday, January 13, 2012

Why the heck is crime so low?

Crime goes up in a recession, right? More people are unemployed, and some of them get desperate. It's only common sense.

Well, think again. Crime rates in the U.S. have been dropping for 20 years, and in the two years since the recession hit, they've dropped even faster. Take a look at this chart, courtesy of this BBC News article:

So why is this happening? The frustrating thing is, no one knows for sure. But there are lots of theories, and I think a combination of the following ones makes the most sense:

  1. Smarter policing
  2. More people imprisoned
  3. Reduction of lead poisoning
  4. Baby boomers aging (fewer young people)
  5. Video games

The video games theory is particularly interesting … recent studies have shown that playing violent video games does increase violent tendencies slightly, but this is more than offset by the simple incapacitation of sitting at home playing video games rather than going out to commit crimes. In other words, if video games are increasing aggressiveness at all, players are then taking out that aggressiveness on more video games.

At any rate, no matter what the true cause of the reduction, it's good news. Now if we can just keep that crime rate low without imprisoning quite so large a percentage of our population - strike a slightly smarter balance there, and make sure our prisoners are treated as humanely as possible - it would be the best of both worlds. (For more information about that issue, I recommend When Brute Force Fails by Mark Kleiman.)

And for more details about the crime drop - specifically, homicide, which has just dropped off the list of the top 15 causes of death for the first time since 1965, check out this Washington Post article and this other one, too.