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Crime is falling

This article caught my eye in the Economist (Paul Marks, avert your gaze now), stating that in many nations, crime rates for offences of property, violence and the like have fallen significantly over the past few decades (but that’s no reason for complacency):

Both police records (which underestimate some types of crime) and surveys of victims (which should not, but are not as regularly available a source of data) show crime against the person and against property falling over the past ten years in most rich countries. In America the fall began around 1991; in Britain it began around 1995, though the murder rate followed only in the mid-2000s. In France, property crime rose until 2001—but it has fallen by a third since. Some crimes are all but disappearing. In 1997, some 400,000 cars were reported stolen in England and Wales: in 2012, just 86,000.


Cities have seen the greatest progress. The number of violent crimes has fallen by 32% since 1990 across America as a whole; in the biggest cities, it has fallen by 64%. In New York, the area around Times Square on 42nd Street, where pornographers once mingled with muggers, is now a family oriented tourist trap. On London’s housing estates, children play in concrete corridors once used by heroin addicts to shoot up. In Tallinn you can walk home from the theatre unmolested as late as you like.


What is behind this spectacular and widespread improvement? Demographic trends are an obvious factor. The baby-boom in the decades after the second world war created a bubble in the 16- to 24-year-old population a couple of decades later, and most crimes are committed by men of that age. That bubble is now long deflated. In most Western countries, the population is ageing, often quite fast.

The magazine looks at a range of others issues, ranging from drugs, policing methods, fewer opportunities, stronger protections on things like cars and houses, and so on. (Of course, modern burglar alarms and all the rest cost money, and there are the potential civil libertarian issues arising from developments in modern policing, arguably). Even so, with all the ifs, buts and niggles about statistics, etc, it seems there has been a genuine improvement, and in quite a short – relatively – period of time.

Maybe we are seeing, in accelerated form, the sort of decline in misbehaviour that Steven Pinker has written about in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

And perhaps because certain forms of crime are in decline, that might also explain how this creates a vacuum for the worriers out there, as they focus on issues such as health, drinking, smoking, paedophiles, and the rest. I am not trivialising such concerns – especially the latter – but it might explain part of what it is going on. It is almost as if we humans need to have stuff to get anxious and worry over and there are plenty of people, with good and less positive motives, who are only to keen to pander to that need.

19 comments to Crime is falling

  • I dunno.

    I’ve heard it argued that _reporting crimes to cops_ is what has fallen, because the cops just shrug off so much of it.

    Also, that cops manipulate the reports they do receive, so they can say they’re ‘meeting their quotas’ or whatever.

  • Or it could be the lack of lead in the air – http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2013/07/crime-and-punishment-get-the-lead-out.php has a round up with much linkage to other places

  • GaryP

    Two possible causes are presented for your consideration. They are not mutually exclusive and may each represent part of the answer.
    1) Crime statistics are known to have been manipulated for political purposes in some places at some times. Could this practice have become almost universal in our brave new world? Certainly, in the US, governmental lying is so common and so brazen that only an partisan, or an idiot (obviously covers a winning 51% of the population) believes anything said by our masters. Why should crime statistics be any different?
    2) Welfare payments are so ubiquitous and generous in the Western world (which I assume is where the statistics primarily come from) that even criminals have become layabouts. Most crime is petty crime and is committed to get enough money for the next fix. What if the people who quit working because crime and welfare are easier also stopped crime because welfare alone is easier?
    Number 2 may seem like a bargain to many except we are fast running out of money.
    Wonder what crime will look like when the welfare payments stop(‘EBT accepted here’ is now on almost every business in the US). Note: EBT stands for Electronic Benefit Transfer–no welfare check required!

  • UncleLumpy

    Wasn’t there some recent findings pointing to strong correlation between removal of lead in petrol and crime?

    Example linky: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9790009/Was-lead-pollution-behind-the-baby-boomer-crime-wave.html

  • Antoine Clarke

    Car theft data cannot be considered in the UK: the law was changed in the 1980s to classify most car thefts as non-criminal (taking without consent). The only measure I trust, on the basis that corpses tend to trigger some sort of police action, is homicide (murder and manslaughter combined),

  • AKM

    The big question is how much of this drop is because of an actual reduction in crime and how much is because the process of data collection by the police is entirely corrupted. We know from Inspector Gadget and the other police blogs that the police are under significant pressure to record crimes in particular ways so their masters (both the Police chiefs and the politicians) can boast about how effective they are at fighting crime. I doubt anyone actually knows what the truth is.

  • Mr Ed

    Antoine, those figures ignore the NHS hospitals.

  • Mr Ed

    Antoine, vehicle taking in England and Wales under the Theft Act 1968 is a crime, but not theft, as theft involves an intention to permanently deprive the owner of property. If deprivation is temporary,it is not ‘theft’, so ‘taking without consent’ (TWOC) covers the act of taking a car for a ‘joyride’, similar provisions apply to taking statues etc on public display.

    Aggravated vehicle taking came in in 2003, where danger, injury or death results.

    It may be that the police simply refuse to classify crimes as seriously or clearly as the complainant wished.

  • People are right to fear that the figures are being massaged, and it is also true that with improvements in medicine some stabbings etc. that would have been homicide thirty years ago are now woundings. However the fall in crime across the whole developed world is SO large that it overwhelms even these two factors.

    Pinker’s book is good, but it documents the fall better than it explains it.

  • Tedd

    I’m intrigued by Johnathan’s point in the final paragraph. Much recent research (and everyday experience) suggests that most people have a stable, default level of happiness that they return to after a disturbance in either direction — even after quite a large disturbance. Perhaps people also have a stable, default level of worry. If so, then worry would not decrease as life got better, but merely become applied to ever more trivial things. Perhaps CAGW is where fear of nuclear holocaust went at the end of the cold war, for example.

    That may also be connected to the optimist-pessimist debate that pops up here from time to time.

  • JohnB

    It’s because those ever increasingly competent sensors, processors and data bases can record store and track the behaviour of potential nasties that we have been set free from the avarice and thuggery of human nature?
    Or perhaps we are just getting nicer.

  • Tedd, yes, I too found the idea in the last paragraph very plausible. It’s the sort of thing you say as a joke, and then you realise that there is a lot of truth in the joke.

    A possibility: as for worry, so also for the desire to stop bad people doing bad things. When the supply of real criminality to fight against runs low, they turn to smoking or portion sizes as the new enemy.

  • Mike Borgelt

    I have heard that as the real cost of home electronics has fallen there is no point in stealing TVs etc. Who would buy one cheap from a bloke at the pub on Saturday night when you can get a new one with warranty for a trivial amount of money.

  • Paul Marks

    That liar, Putin’s boy Max Keiser, does not always lie – and one thing he says (in another context) is relevant to this falling crime matter.

    When a great wave is about to crash into the land (killing vast numbers of people) the water actually recedes….. People go out into what was the sea saying “where has the water gone?”

    Then the water returns…..

    This is what is happening with crime – and all other hopeful statistics right now.

  • Mr Ed

    Paul, this chap from City A.M. sees the danger that the economy is in.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Mr Ed – people are saving about 5% of their incomes (in spite of their incomes being propped up by credit bubble monetary policy), debt is about 300% of GDP, and industrial production is actually in decline (and this is the phony boom – industry is declining during the boom?).

    And the government’s answer? “We must get people spending again – especially on housing…..”, although the latest wheeze is to get banks to lend to areas where it is known (where it is actually already known) that people do not pay back loans. So we have copied the insane American housing bubble policy, now we are going to copy their campaign against “Red Lining” (i.e. their campaign against sanity – against not lending in areas where people do not pay back their loans).

    Still the population are peaceful – we are too fat and old to commit violent crimes. But not everyone is old – and soon fewer people will be fat (at least not in a good way).

  • Paul Marks

    Do I really need to tell people that borrowing should be from REAL savings (i.e. the voluntary sacrifice of consumption) and that loans should only be made to people who will pay them back?

    I have reached the point where I believe that people who actually need to be told the above do not understand human language – and so it is pointless to try and explain it to them.

    One does not talk to rabid dogs.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    The falling crimerate will correct itself. As soon as they fire a few cops because there is no need for them, those cops will go on crime sprees, and that will give work to the rest! No problemo!