FBI Statistics Show Crime Falling Despite Recession

It would seem to be common sense that during a recession crime rates would increase, right? After all, desperate times can drive people to do things they may not ordinarily do, such as engaging in theft, shoplifting and burglary. On top of that, the tensions associated with financial distress are likely to boil over at times into physical violence.

The majority of Americans tend to agree with this assumption — in a recent Rasmussen poll, 80% of Americans believed that worsening economic conditions would lead to a rise in crime. These beliefs are backed up by criminologists who, according to the CS Monitor, “have expected crime rates to rise -– especially as young unemployed males turn to illegal enterprises for cash during the recession.”

Turns out that such thinking may be so much myth. A report from the FBI earlier this week indicated that crime has dwindled down to 1960s levels. The latest figures are illustrated here in this very nice graphic from the FBI web site:

us crime statistics060508

The Monitor sums up these figures:

The report is gleaned from law enforcement reports spanning 2007 and 2008 – including a period that preceded the recession’s grip. The data show that the murder rate dropped 4 percent, and the total number of reported rapes dropped to 89,000 – the lowest level in 20 years. Car thefts were down 12 percent.

Research shows that this drop in crime during a recession is not without precedent. In his book “Lessons from the Great Depression”, Stephen Wiegand details how crime rates initially rose in the first few years of the Depression but dropped dramatically after the end of Prohibition in 1933. But he does note that property crimes and burglaries were the felonies that remained stubbornly higher than most other forms of lawbreaking.

These counterintuitive statistics have led some criminologists to suggest that because crime is local, and because poverty and/or the effects of the recession tend to hit the same communities quite evenly, crime may not rise if everyone feels that others are in the same position as themselves. As Stephen Handelman, director of the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College in New York puts it:

“If everybody’s in the same bag, then individual neighborhoods are not necessarily as threatened as when you have sharp disparities in income, as you did in the 1990s.”

At present, however, all bets are on hold, because the real hurt of this recession in terms of unemployment and its effects is yet to be fully represented in the statistics. This is because these latest FBI figures relate to 2008 and we are now another year into this mess.

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4 Responses

  1. Those are fascinating statistics… the struggle to explain them in one easy sentence may prove to be too much however. Sometimes the complexity of human interactions cannot be explained by the simple “people are poor so they turn to crime” or “they are all in the same boat so they don’t steal“.

    These are Total Crimes too, right? Presumably the population has also increased… so, in terms of crimes per head, would it be fair to fly in the face of popular/media opinion and say we are living in a more law abiding society these days?

  2. All crime stats tend to per capita or per 100,000, say, so they are directly applicable across time. Agree with your assessment of the simple explanations — criminologists are probably like economists — no clue! It may be that poor people band together and help each other out in tough times, or that criminals know there’s nothing of value to steal in that neighborhood.

    The guys that would probably come up with the best explanations would be the Freakonomics authors.

  3. I remember years ago a Canadian professor ( yes they have them too ) was here speaking about the disparity between violent crimes reported to the police and the reporting of those crimes through the media. Can’ remember the exact figures but it was along the lines of less than 2% to the police versus 10% in the media.
    What was it Foucault said ? something about imprison a few of us to keep us all imprisoned ? Sorry, too lazy to look it up

  4. What I find a little weird in that FBI graphic above is the phrase “Forcible Rape”. Are there other types of rape that I don’t know about?

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