Do U.S. Crime Rates Rise as Economy Falls?

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April was a bloody month in some cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C., with murders and violence spiking. But when it comes to the national crime picture, the trend is that there isn't one.


April turned out to be the cruelest month for some American cities. Murders spiked in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago. Here in D.C., 14 people died in two weeks. It sounds like a page right out of the crack wars of the early 1990s, but criminologists say it's not. The only national crime trend right now is that there isn't one.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Criminologists love trends. The economy goes bad, robberies go up. Drugs flood the street, people turn up dead. But for almost five years now crime in U.S. cities has defied logic.

Mr. DAVID KENNEDY (Director, Center for Crime Prevention and Control): You get some that are down dramatically, some that are even, and some that are dramatically worse.

SULLIVAN: David Kennedy directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John J. College of Criminal Justice. He says crime has become a local phenomenon. One year, violence in St. Louis spikes, Chicago enjoys a record low. Then it flips. Or take one city. A few years ago Cincinnati seemed headed towards a spiral of violence, now its murder rate's been cut almost in half. The reason, Kennedy says, depends on each individual place, which makes finding national solutions difficult.

Mr. KENNEDY: If you're in Orlando and your homicide rate doubled, you don't really care that it's been offset by Omaha. The fact is we're in the middle of a slow motion train wreck.

SULLIVAN: The biggest problem with localized violence is that its effects are often felt statewide or nationally. There are prison costs and overcrowding, failing educational efforts and increasing gang violence. Effects, Kennedy says, can be hard to see and harder to quantify.

Mr. KENNEDY: We're just so used to it. We're used to these side effects. The only question we're asking is, is it getting worse. That a place that's terrible but not moving is OK. And that's - that's ridiculous.

SULLIVAN: It's not just urban areas either. Last year's statistics show stunning crime spikes are just as likely to hit counties or rural areas. Often it's a small number of people who are responsible for the majority of crime. And when it comes to gangs, it can quickly spiral out of control. Experts call this the respect culture, where six people end up dead because someone stepped on someone's shoe and then everyone has to retaliate.

Criminologists say they're growing concerned these localized spikes could soon become widespread and spring and summer have never been good times for crime. Historically violence goes up when people come outside. Then there's the state of the economy and the prevalence of handguns and hundreds of thousands of people returning from prison.

Criminologist Alfred Blumstein at Carnegie Mellon University says a list of warning flags is even longer than that.

Professor ALFRED BLUMSTEIN (Criminologist, Carnegie Mellon University): The increasing outsourcing of jobs, low education, the diversion of police to dealing with terror incidents and the reduction of federal money, certainly doesn't bode well and could be a precursor.

SULLIVAN: The good news is that crime may not be heading to your town this summer. The town next to you, though, may be in trouble.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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