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Crime Is Down--
But Why?

Since 1991, crime rates have been dropping. In the last year (1998) for which figures are available, major crime decreased by an estimated 7 percent nationally and 5.2 percent in Texas. Preliminary reports on the incidence of crime in 1999 indicate a continuing drop.

Nationally in 1998, according to Uniform Crime Report data reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, robbery was down 11 percent, motor vehicle theft 10 percent, murder 8 percent, burglary 7 percent, larceny 6 percent, and sexual assault and aggravated assault 5 percent each.

No longer is it a question of whether crime is decreasing, but of "Why?" Larry Hoover, director of the Police Research Center at Sam Houston State University, offered some answers.

First, as most good academicians would, Hoover sets the stage. There are five factors which could affect crime rates, he said, including:

  • Social-demographic trends--for example, a decrease in the proportion of the population being in the 15-24 crime prone age bracket and a return to "family values" could decrease crime;

  • Economic conditions--extreme economic stress breeds social violence, particularly spouse abuse, and property crime is influenced by changing economic conditions;

  • Drug use and supply--scarce supplies raise street prices, potentially increasing crime, but may mean fewer users, thus decreasing crime;

  • Incarceration rates--for the last 10 years most states have built new prisons at record rates and Texas has tripled its prison capacity;

  • Police programs--Texas has been a leader in an array of vigorous, targeted enforcement programs by police agencies.

Hoover does not believe crime decreases have been due to changes in demographics or improved "family values," as indicated by such factors as unmarried childbearing, teenage births, divorce and church attendance rates.

"There is no indication in church attendance rates that would argue that values have somehow suddenly and dramatically shifted," he said.

Neither does he attribute any great effect to trends in drug use or the "war on drugs."

"Our current policies are not having much effect on availability or usage of drugs," he said. "These data challenge the assumption that there is a close relationship between drug use prevalence and crime rates."

While the economy has grown steadily since 1970, with generally low unemployment rates, crime did not start dropping until 1991, and the economy is called only a "probable factor." In an economy that seems sound overall, Hoover said, there has been social disorganization as well, an increasing concentration of poverty and growing income inequality.

"Changes in the economy, incarceration rates, and police programs do, however, appear to have had an effect," said Hoover. "The economy is booming, incarceration is up, and the police have become proactive. The three in combination certainly have had a substantial influence."

As factors most likely to have caused crime decreases. Hoover favors the trend toward more prisons, higher incarceration rates, and better policing practices.

"The public was fed up with persistent high crime rates and demanded that chronic offenders, particularly violent offenders, be locked up for long periods," said Hoover. "A prison building boom has accompanied changes in sentencing laws."

There are approximately 1,000 state and 80 federal prisons in the United States, where the prison population tripled between 1980 and 1995. The United States imprisons more of its population (600 of every 100,000) than any other country. Texas imprisons more of its population than any other state (more than 700 per 100,000).

And while educational and required work programs aimed at rehabilitating criminals can help former inmates become law-abiding, he said that "those who advocate heavy emphasis upon rehabilitation as a purpose of incarceration are currently in the politically incorrect column."

He believes strongly that the police are doing a better job.

To better understand the possible mixed effect of incarceration and police programming, he compared the sharp drop in crime in Houston in 1992 with the crime rates during the comparable period in other Texas cities.

"While incarceration affected all of the state's major cities," he said, "a sudden and dramatic drop in crime occurred only in Houston. This drop correlated month by month with dramatically increased arrests."

Two years later a similar drop occurred in New York City. Precinct commanders were told to take personal responsibility for crime rates in their area. Commanders ordered patrol officers to make arrests and lifted long-standing policies prohibiting patrol officers from enforcing vice and narcotic offenses (for fear of corruption at the beat level).

"Crime started dropping immediately and dramatically," said Hoover. "Interestingly, even murder dropped precipitously."

In Texas, police have tried new "proactive" programs with various names-community policing, problem solving, crime-specific policing, targeted enforcement and beat management.

Programs include gang intervention, domestic violence efforts, housing project assistance, auto theft task forces, citizens on patrol, citizen police academies, neighborhood association partnerships, school resource officers, real-time crime analysis, beat responsibility, nuisance abatement, bicycle patrols and integrated street crime reduction task forces.

"Where agencies have implemented aggressive intervention styles, crime in some cases has dropped precipitously over a period of months, not years," Hoover said. "Clearly the police make a difference."

And how can we afford to continue these prison and policing efforts? We can't afford not to, said Hoover.

Bureau of Justice statistics estimate the personal cost of crime (direct dollar losses to individuals) at around $17.6 billion per year. Not included are the costs to crime victims of lost work, needed medical care, new security measures, and pain and suffering.

"Crime may not continue to fall," said Hoover. "The recent reduction, for whatever reason, may be bottoming out. But now is a good time to look at what we may have been doing right and what we may need to do to continue and even improve these trends for the future."

- END -

Contact: Larry Hoover

SHSU Media Contact:Frank Krystyniak
Feb. 1, 2000
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