Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Great Crime Decline - A farewell to arms

Zimring's 2006 book is still the classic explanation - available on Amazon
News of armed regional conflicts around the world distorts the truth of local crime. That truth? Crime in developed countries continues a long plunge into lowly rates unknown for decades.

As Vanessa Barker notes in her research, criminology has no idea why.  Frank Zimring’s book on the The Great American Crime Decline does say why criminologists can't figure it out:

“The knowledge gap in current social science understanding comes almost equally from the unavoidable weakness of a non-experimental discipline and from avoidable provincialism and ideological blinders.”


Crime plummets in places where police are underfunded, like the UK, and in places where police enjoy copious salaries, like Toronto.

Crime plummets before, during and after the Great Recession (kind of puts the lie to the idea that economic downturns trigger it or abundant times stop it). It plummets with or without mass incarceration, like the US versus Canada.

It plummets where security is abundant (vehicle immobilizers, gated communities) and also where security is scarce, like my own city where lighting is poor, gates are rare and burglar alarms a luxury.


The Economist Magazine says the reason crime plummets is that today’s crime-prone cohort, young males between 18- 34, are more civilized:

"Young people are increasingly sober and well behaved. They are more likely to live with their parents and to be in higher education."

Really? Well, in Better Angels of Our Nature psychologist Steven Pinker does suggest something similar he calls the civilizing effect.

The Toronto Star quotes government statisticians who stir new police practices, reduced alcohol consumption and inflation into their causation broth in a frantic search for an answer. Ultimately they have no idea.

Portland revitalizing with Intersection Repair and community paint-ins


Through it all, two social cohesion ingredients persist:

  1. We are aging. Young males commit most crime, what criminologists call the age-crime curve. As their numbers decline so too does crime. Complex statistical models on demographics and crime  don’t show it. But complex statistical models rarely prove anything in social science. No biggie.
  2. Inner city neighborhood revitalization. Not everywhere, of course (Detroit). Yet enough cities around the world from Bogota to Boston have revitalized their inner city neighborhoods to make a difference, especially regarding housing.
The truth is crime has always concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods. It stands to reason improvements in the inner city - better housing, improved infrastructure - magnify the power that neighbors have to control problems through social ties, watching over each other and so forth (the social side of defensible space that Oscar Newman wrote about).

Then add aging demographics together with the civilizing effect and neighborhood redevelopment and you have a workable recipe, a one-two-three punch in prevention practice.

The social cohesion effect is good news in the 21st Century city, especially considering the persistent plague of urban homelessness, gangs and drugs. It’s especially positive for SafeGrowth practitioners and those who practice targeted community development such as LISC. It points the way forward.