Washington — High unemployment. More folks on food stamps. Fewer owning their homes. Yet for all the signs of recession, something is missing: More crime.
Experts are scratching their heads over why crime has ebbed so far during this recession, making it different from other economic downturns of the past half-century. Early guesses include jobless folks at home keeping closer watch for thieves, or the American population just getting older— and older people commit fewer crimes.
Preliminary FBI crime figures for the first half of 2009 show crime falling across the country, even at a time of high unemployment, foreclosures and layoffs. Most surprisingly, murder and manslaughter fell 10 percent for the first half of the year.
“That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied crime trends.
Rosenfeld said he did not expect the 10 percent drop in killings to be sustained over the entire year, as more data is reported. But he said the broad declines are exceptional, given that past recessions stretching back to the 1950s have boosted crime rates.
Bill Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, said the decrease comes from major police departments closely tracking developing crime patterns.
“Police have gotten much better at analyzing numbers and responding quickly,” said Bratton, now chairman of Altegrity Security Consulting, a private security firm based in Virginia. “Los Angeles has been in an economic downturn almost two years ahead of the country and is now in its eighth straight year of crime decline.”
In times of recession, property crimes, in particular, are expected to rise.
Overall, property crimes fell by 6.1 percent, and violent crimes by 4.4 percent, according to the six-month data collected by the FBI. Crime rates haven’t been this low since the 1960s, and are nowhere near the peak reached in the early 1990s.
Rosenfeld said there are several possible explanations, including that extended unemployment benefits, food stamps and other government-driven economic stimulus “have cushioned and delayed for many people the big blows that come from a recession.”
Those benefits will have to run out eventually, he cautioned.
Another possible factor is that with more people home from work, it is harder for burglars to break into a home or apartment unnoticed by neighbors, he said. Rosenfeld said another possibility is that big cities’ technology-driven, “smart policing” efforts are driving down national rates.
The new figures show car thefts also dropped significantly, falling nearly 19 percent and continuing a sharp downward trend in that category. Some believe that big drop in car theft is due largely to the security locking systems installed on most models, as well as more high-tech deterrents like car recovery devices that use the Global Positioning System.
James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said he was not surprised by the overall downward trends.
“The popular wisdom is wrong,” said Fox. “If a law-abiding citizen loses their job, they don’t typically go on a crime spree.”
Fox argued the decline is partly due to the graying of America. As the over-50 population grows, he said, crime goes down, even while other social costs, like health care, go up.
Like Rosenfeld, Fox also doubted that big changes — like a 10 percent drop in murders — are sustainable.
“We shouldn’t celebrate too loudly,” he said, arguing that it may be a statistical fluke, but one that can also generate complacency on the part of public officials.
“You don’t solve the crime problem, you only control it,” he said.
The figures are based on data supplied to the FBI by more than 11,700 police and law enforcement agencies. They compare reported crimes in the first six months of this year to the first six months of last year. Separate statistics compiled by the Justice Department measure both reported and unreported crimes.
The early 2009 data suggest the crime-dropping trend of 2008 is not just continuing but accelerating. In 2008, the same data showed a nearly 4 percent drop in murder and manslaughter, and an overall drop in violent crime of 1.9 percent from 2007 to 2008.