You're (Probably) Wrong About Crime

Guest

Robert Sampson, chairman of the Department of Sociology, Harvard University

The FBI found that crime dropped significantly in 2009, despite the recession. It's the third straight year of decline, and runs counter to historical trends that link economic decline to a jump in crime. Still, a Gallup poll from 2009 shows that a vast majority of Americans believe crime is up.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The good news, the FBI tells us, is that crime dropped more than five percent last year. The bad news, according to Gallup, is that almost three quarters of Americans believe crime is actually getting worse. There are all kinds of interesting questions on both sides of that equation, but maybe the most interesting centers on the discrepancy between reality and perception. What are we afraid of? How do you explain it? Why is it important? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Robert Sampson is chairman of the Department of Sociology and professor of the social sciences at Harvard. And he joins us from a studio there at the university in Cambridge. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor ROBERT SAMPSON (Harvard University): Thank you.

CONAN: And these numbers don't seem to leave a lot of room for ambiguity. Crime has been going down steadily for three years now. Perceptions trend in the opposite direction. How come?

Prof. SAMPSON: Well, first of all, it's definitely a clear decline. In fact, we can think of this as the great American crime decline. It started actually a little bit earlier, in about the mid-1990s. It went down dramatically, leveled off a little bit around 2001, and it's continued its decline. In fact, at least in terms of the country at large and in many cities, we're looking at crime rates now that are about the level that we saw in the 1950s or early '60s.

CONAN: The good old days.

Prof. SAMPSON: The good old days, exactly. So it's important in discussing this to note first off that this is large. It's not just a little bit of a change. These are substantial declines. They're real, according to most research. That is to say, we can't attribute them simply to reporting differences. Lots of independent evidence suggests that crime is down, including things that we can count very well, like homicides. For example, in Los Angeles homicides are down something like 20 percent from 2009 compared to 2008. That's remarkable. Many other cities have shown similar declines.

CONAN: Meanwhile, if that poll is correct, three quarters of us do not believe this. And not only don't believe it, believe exactly the opposite.

Prof. SAMPSON: Yes. It's an interesting paradox. Although when one begins to probe it, it's a little less surprising. And I think there are several reasons. One, most Americans, when they tend to think about crime, tend to relate it to economic conditions, what I think of as sort of a materialist fallacy.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. SAMPSON: In the United States, we're always following the GNP. We're always worried about the state of the economy. But when it comes to crime, it doesn't track the economy very well. Actually, a number of things don't. I mean, the GNP doesn't predict better or greater happiness. It doesn't predict crime all that well. In fact, a little history lesson shows that. I mean, we can go back further in time. The Roaring Twenties saw dramatic increases in crime. The Depression saw substantial declines. In fact, the peak was around 1933, then it went down. In the '60s, when the economy was booming, we saw crime going up. And then now we have one of the greatest economic crises in our time, if not ever, and crime is down. So the facts tell us that we cannot simply equate crime with the economy. And theory or conceptual ideas about crime would have told us that as well, because much crime is not about...

CONAN: Well, this is...

Prof. SAMPSON: ...material goods.

CONAN: Well, it's been a long-running argument. Basically, one side holding that poor people committed crime, and the more poor people you had, the more crime you are going to have.

Prof. SAMPSON: Yes, and that's - it's a reasonable argument. Although, again, there's a difference between, for example, the concentration of poor people in a particular population with institutions that are not serving the public good, and fluctuations, let's say, in the unemployment rate. And those are two different things. I think the research is fairly clear that in cities across the United States, if we have areas where there's a high degree of segregation, isolation of groups that are poor, in poor schools, then we do see higher rates of not only violence but school dropout and a number of other social problems. So it's fairly complex.

But I think the simple dynamic or over-time relationship between crime and economy, which is what most people fixate on, simply does not work all that well. And that's why the usual suspect is part of the explanation, because people assume, well, a bad thing has happened, economy has gone down, and therefore crime should go up. But we tend not to think about some of the other characteristics that drive crime variations over time, such as incarceration and policing, age structure, immigration, and so forth.

CONAN: The other theory broadly held - that no, poor people don't commit crime, criminals commit crimes. And the more criminals you lock up and put away, the fewer crimes you're going to have.

Prof. SAMPSON: Yes, that's a theory. I think what I would say about that is the evidence on the relationship between the criminal justice system and crime rates has now, I think, generated a fair amount of consensus. And that is to say that the incarceration rate has gone up vast amounts since about the mid-1970s. The timing of it doesn't work perfectly in terms of figuring out, well, why is crime going down now? The incarceration rate went up earlier than when the crime rate went down. I think most people agree that we're locking up too many people. Nonetheless, a fair amount of research suggests that of the declines in crime, we contribute(ph) somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of it to incarceration rates.

And secondly, and also related to the criminal justice system, the police do make a difference. They've gotten better. They're smarter. Technology has improved. We have better policies for how we police high-rate offenders and hotspots of crime in our cities. So I think that is part of the explanation, although I think it's somewhat overblown. You know, individual police chiefs will claim this or that. But one thing we have to understand about the decline in the crime rate is that it's a national phenomenon. It's pervasive.

In fact, it's even in other countries. Crime is going down in Canada, and it's followed a similar trend. So we can't say, well, what the police did in New York City explains all that. We have to look to broader factors, which is why I think that social conditions, particularly the great changes that we've seen in immigration, have something to do with it. And also that has something to do with the question you posed at the beginning, or the paradox: Why do people perceive there to be a difference in the crime rate? That is, they think it's really going up by a lot. I mean, 75 percent of the population think it's going up. That's a substantial number. And it went up from about 50 percent, I believe it was, in a Gallup poll from a few years back. So that's a trend that's directly opposite to what's really happening.

CONAN: Robert Sampson is our guest, chairman of the Department of Sociology and professor of social sciences at Harvard. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Paula(ph) on the line. Paula calling us from Bend, Oregon.

PAULA (Caller): Hi. I was wondering if the proliferation of all the crime shows that are on TV, and that we seem to be afraid to talk to each other and get to know people that are different than us, could be a cause of it. And maybe we should watch more PBS.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SAMPSON: Well, I'm...

CONAN: Go ahead.

Prof. SAMPSON: I'm all for that, but I'm not sure it's going to have an effect on our perceptions. But I do think you're making a good point in the following way, that the way that we're conceptualizing and reporting on these things may have something to do with it. So let's lay out some out some of the possibilities here in terms of why people might actually have this disconnect.

One is, as you're suggesting, some kind of a reporting or news media hypothesis. I'm not convinced that that can explain it. First of all, seems to me that the gore on the nightly news is not really any different than it was years ago, and fewer people were watching the local news.

Secondly, if it is in fact something to do with the reporting, it may have to do more with how people are perceiving the change in our country rather than crime per se. In other words, what the Gallup poll and other things do show is that our perceptions about crime track a more abstract notion having to do with satisfaction with our country. That makes a certain amount of a sense.

If people think the country is going to hell in a hand basket, then they tend to expand from that to a bunch of other bad things. So we know from lots of different polls that there's a lot of dissatisfaction right now with government, there's concern with the economy, people know it's bad. They extrapolate, in other words, from that.

CONAN: But even...

Prof. SAMPSON: So I think that's part of it.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left, but even...

Prof. SAMPSON: Sure.

CONAN: ...on immigration, in Phoenix, where some politicians would have us believe illegal immigrants are holding box cutters to the throats of the citizenry, crime is way down.

Prof. SAMPSON. Yeah, exactly, and that goes to my last hypothesis, which I happen to think is the correct one, namely that we have a rapidly changing population in the United States, increasing diversity, increasing immigration. Research shows, and our own research as well, that when we look at communities and we take into account the crime rate, we take into account the various queues of disorder that we see in urban spaces, things like graffiti, kids hanging out on the corner, people drinking alcohol in public, cars up on blocks and so forth, what happens is that that is what really seems to bother people. And if you think about it, we don't actually see crime. Crime is something you either hear about or that you infer.

The research shows that where you have increasing heterogeneity or increasing immigration - in other words, communities that have lots of different groups mixing together, and similarly when you have a society that's undergoing rapid change through immigration, through increasing diversity, it tends to lead, at least initially, to lower trust and it leads to increased perceptions of disorder. In our research in Chicago, we actually videotaped streets, we collected crime rates, and then we went out and we talked to people. And it turns out that all people, not - I'm not - this isn't just about...

CONAN: Fifteen seconds.

Prof. SAMPSON: ...an individual's race, right? So whites, Latinos, blacks, everybody believes that disorder and crime are higher where there's higher levels of diversity and immigration. And that's, I think, part of what's going on in terms of our perceptions across the country.

CONAN: Robert Sampson, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Prof. SAMPSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Sampson of the Department of Sociology and professor of social sciences at Harvard, with us today from a studio there in Cambridge.

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