Why Is Crime Down Again?
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
This week brought San Diego good news that’s so familiar it’s gotten mundane. Crime is down. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) tells us that both property crime and violent crime were at a ten year low during the first six months of this year. What’s interesting about this story is the question why.
SAN DIEGO This week brought San Diego good news that’s so familiar it’s gotten mundane. Crime is down. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) tells us both property crime and violent crime were at a ten year low during the first six months of this year. The violent crime rate was down 8 percent in San Diego County compared to the same time last year. Property crime this year is down 2 percent.
What’s interesting about this story is the question why. Explanations for the dips and surges in rates of crime have always been rife with racism, moralizing and dodgy social science.
The most provocative explanation I’ve heard has come from Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, who wrote the book “Freakonomics.” They cite statistics and argue that crime began to drop dramatically around 1990 because abortion was legalized in 1973. They said people who would have become criminals, in their late teens and 20s, didn’t . . . .because they were aborted.
Abortion has been a tool of eugenics? Very creepy.
But let’s get back to the present and closer to home. San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne told me crime has gone down around here thanks to good police work.
“The concept of community-oriented policing, where the community works very, very closely with police departments, provides us with information, testifies for us in court, and calls us quickly using technology --cell phones -- I think has made just a tremendous impact,” he said.
Lansdowne added the drop in violent crime this year is part of a much bigger trend.
“In 1991, we had 167 homicides in the City of San Diego,” he said. “This year to date we're at 23 homicides.”
Lansdowne isn’t the only person who’s credited police policy with reductions in crime. Maybe you’ve heard about New York City’s “broken window” approach to crime fighting. Let criminals get away with small stuff like vandalism and pretty soon they think they can get away with anything and that leads to lots of serious crime.
Fix the broken windows and erase the graffiti and pretty soon you’ve got a safe place to live.
But Paul Sutton, who teaches criminal justice at San Diego State, sees things differently. He says police are quick to take credit for falling crimes rates. But when crime goes up they prefer to blame the sad state of society and the feral youth it spawns. Sutton says they're closer to the truth in the second scenario.
He says very few changes in crime rates are caused by the work of the criminal justice system.
“Significant changes in any kind of crime pattern are the result of macro changes in the population, in the age distribution of the population,” said Sutton.
Young people commit the most crimes, but it's hard to know whether age distribution can explain this year's 10-year low in San Diego’s crime rates. SANDAG demographer Beth Jarosz says San Diego County has seen an increase in its late teen population over the past decade. But at the same time there’s been a drop in the number of people in their 20s.
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