Mining the Crime Drop of the 1990s for Social Clues If you're a crime fighter or a sociologist, the 1990s offer many chances for scratching your head. Crime rates across America dropped dramatically. Murder rates were down by as much as 42 percent; robbery by as much as 44 percent. Why?
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Mining the Crime Drop of the 1990s for Social Clues

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Mining the Crime Drop of the 1990s for Social Clues

Mining the Crime Drop of the 1990s for Social Clues

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From 1993 to the year 2000, the number of murders and robberies in the U.S. took a serious turn for the better. Nationwide violent crime rates fell, and in some places such as New York City, the drop in crime rate hit a level not seen since the 1960s. But while sociologists and others who study crime can tell you what happened and where, no one seems to be able to say exactly why it happened. Lots of reasons have been offered - the end of the crack epidemic, a better economy, for example - but no single factor can completely explain the decline.

And while scientists are still trying to figure out the 1990s, there is the possibility that crime rates may be starting to rise again. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, murder rates rose by nearly three percent in 2005.

(Soundbite of siren)

FLATOW: There was a nearly 10 percent rise in the robberies in the first have of the year. Social scientists are not sure whether that number is just a harmless blip on the radar screen or a signal that crime has turned around again, as the sirens outside - the police sirens...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: by our studio. So while politicians talk about getting tough on crime and the U.S. continues to incarcerate a record number of people, we really have no clear idea really, scientifically, on what works when it comes to crime fighting. And will we ever be able to understand this historic drop and learn how to keep crime at these low levels, or are we headed back to another surge in crime, back to the bad old days of the 1980s?

That's what we'll be talking about this hour. We spend a lot of money in this country fighting crime. Shouldn't it be going to programs that are known to work and what are they. And where do we spend money to learn about crime rates? Is there enough money being spent on gathering all these statistics?

We're here in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And if you're in the audience, I invite you to step up to the microphone, ask a question. If you're listening to the radio or on the Web, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

Let me introduce my guests. Franklin Zimring is the author of "The Great American Crime Deadline." He's also the William G. Simon Professor of Law and Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. Thank you for being with us today.

Professor FRANKLIN ZIMRING (University of California, Berkeley) Yes. Thank you. It's "The Great American Crime Decline."

FLATOW: What did I say?

Prof. ZIMRING: Deadline.

FLATOW: Deadline. Well...

Prof. ZIMRING: That siren is getting to you.

FLATOW: It's getting to me. Thank you. "Great American Crime Decline." It's my glasses are getting to me also.

Janet Lauritsen is professor of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Thank you for being with us today, Dr. Lauritsen.

Professor JANET LAURITSEN (Criminology and Criminal Justice University of Missouri St. Louis): Thank you.

FLATOW: Alfred Blumstein is professor of urban systems and operations and the research director of the National Consortium on Violence Research at Carnegie Mellon. Thanks for talking with us today, Dr. Blumstein.

Professor ALFRED BLUMSTEIN (Director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, Carnegie Mellon University): Delighted to be here.

FLATOW: Richard Rosenfeld is a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Thank you for joining us today.

Professor RICHARD ROSENFELD (Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri St. Louis): You're welcome. Thank you.

FLATOW: Let me ask, Al Blumstein, is this a real crime rate inching up again or is it a blip? What do you think?

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: That's a tough one to know, but we have had a very flat crime rate in the United States since 2000. We had the big decline of over 40 percent drop in murder and robbery. It's been flat since then, and it's tough to know whether a two percent change is meaningful. What is of interesting and important concern is that we had almost a 10 percent rise in robberies in the front half of 2006, and that was in a large number of cities, and that's an issue of concern. And there are lots of explanations for what it might - what might be contributing to a rise. But those explanations would have prevailed over the last three or four years anyway.

FLATOW: Frank Zimring, let's talk about that drop in the 1990s. Tell us what crimes declined and how...

Prof. ZIMRING: Well, that's easy. Everything declined.

FLATOW: Everything.

Prof. ZIMRING: It declined everywhere. There are seven index crimes in the United States that the FBI counts, and they're very different from one another. The people who steal your cars, and not the people who kill you, and are not the forcible rapists - everything went down. It went down in big cities, it went down in small towns, it went down in rural areas, it went down in every geographic zone, with the exception of New York City, which was a special double dose. The thing that was huge about this change was its generality.

FLATOW: Now when you say double dose, what do you mean by that?

Prof. ZIMRING: A simple rule of thumb for looking at New York City is that you take the decline in the United States and you double it, and you come within about one percent of explaining what happened in New York. New York also has been the city that's kept going down. It's been 14 years in New York, not just the nine in the United States.

FLATOW: And I'll ask the panel in general, and I'll start with you, Frank. Do we know why these factor, you know...

Prof. ZIMRING: Yeah, there's good news and bad news. There are a lot of reasons in retrospect. Now here's an important point: Nobody called this decline before it happened, so there are no convincing leading indicators that were around.

But in retrospect, what we had in the 1990s was an epidemic of good news for crime declines. We had 57 percent more people in prison, and unless they're all innocent, that's going to do some crime reduction. We had a decline in the proportion of the population that was younger, and they get arrested more. We had the longest boom in American economic history, and Rick Rosenfeld will tell you a good deal about that. So there's lots of different candidates. But then the question is how much of the total decline can you explain? My guess is about half. And then, you know, who do you give first, second and third prize to, and oh boy, can you have some interesting professional meetings about that.

FLATOW: We'll get into that. Richard Rosenfeld, you want to tell us what he was referring to when he said you'll tell us about it?

Prof. ROSENFELD: The economy clearly mattered with respect to the crime decline in the 1990s. My colleague Robert Fornango at Arizona State University and I introduced a new indicator, at least new in the study of crime. We used consumer sentiment data to track changes in collective perceptions of economic conditions. And it turns out in both of the studies we conducted, the Consumer Sentiment Index was a rather robust predictor of crime declines through the '90s, and I should say before and even since.

FLATOW: Well, what do you mean by - define that for us, Consumer Sentiment Index.

Prof. ROSENFELD: Yeah, since the early 1950s, the University of Michigan something similar is done now in many nations across the world - random samples of the adult population are asked how they're doing these days financially, and how they're doing now compared to a year ago, and how they're doing now compared to what they think their situation may be a year from now. And they're also asked about economy-wide conditions, not just their personal situation.

That indicator turns out to be a very good predictor of subsequent economic changes, such as inflation, unemployment, overall economic growth. And in our research, we're finding that it's a reasonably good predictor of subsequent changes and contemporaneous changes in property crime rates and in the crime of robbery.

FLATOW: If people think that they're safer, do crimes go down? I mean if people look around, they don't see graffiti anymore, you know, you've chased the three-card Monte players out of town or someplace. Do they say, well, maybe crime is, you know, better, and crime is going down?

Prof. ROSENFELD: That may be. Certainly that's been proposed as an important part of the New York City story.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. ROSENFELD: That's cleaning up so-called disorder - graffiti on the buildings, dumping stuff in yards, and all of that. Cleaning that up can have a series of consequences leading to reductions of more serious crime, in addition to simply making people feel better about the local scene.

And I have to say there's some professional debate about how important that factor is. My own sense is that it did play a role certainly in New York. Whether it has elsewhere, we don't know.

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: Yeah. But there is one extraordinarily interesting historical note - that's the so-called broken windows theory. And the people who originally sold that theory...

FLATOW: Well, let us what that theory.

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: Okay. This is James Q. Wilson and George Kelling writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1982. And the theory is essential that making people feel safer will, by minor sort of quality of life law enforcement, increase their satisfaction and feeling of safety as citizens in cities.

Now I stop there because the historic point I want to make is in the original article they said of course it doesn't influence the crime rate; it's not going to make the crime rate go down, it's just going to make people feel better about it. They've changed their view on that. But the point that I wanted to make is that back in the 1980s, when the crime news was bad, people didn't think that there was any real close connection between things we could do and making big chunks in the crime rate, and they may have been unduly cautious.

Now people think whatever we're going to do it's going to have big impacts because the news has been so good. That's not a good time to go out and invest in the stock market.

FLATOW: But if you had all these cities at once across America reduced in crime - you're talking about what was happening in New York and other places - how did they all know what to do together, Richard?

Prof. ROSENFELD: Yeah, that's the problem.

FLATOW: How did they all do it together?

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: Let me augment that discussion, what I contributed


Prof. BLUMSTEIN: First, there was a major rise in violence between '85 and about 1993. That was all attributable to young people with handguns, and a major factor there was the recruitment of those young people into the crack markets. They had to carry guns. Their buddies started carrying guns to protect themselves against these guys, and the guys in the drug market had to carry the guns to protect themselves against street robbers.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: So that was one of the major factors in the rise, and there was an undoing of that largely as a result of the decline in the demand for crack during - but by new users - that started in the early '90s. They no longer needed these wild kids in those drug markets, and that links to the robustness of the economy, which could absorb them. You were asking for the single factor that contributed to it. You can't find a single factor. It's the interaction of a variety of these factors that really have to be taken into account.

FLATOW: We'll...

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: There was a second factor...

FLATOW: Hang on with that second factor because we have to pay a bill here or two, so we'll be right back after this short break. Talk about the drop in crime and phenomenon that happened across the country, and take your questions - 1-800-989-8255 - and talk about how it even dropped in Canada at this same time. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about crime and the drop in the '90s, and why it occurred, the different kinds of theories that might be there, with my guests. Franklin Zimring, author of "The Great American Crime Decline." He's also professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. Alfred Blumstein, professor of urban systems and operations at Carnegie Mellon. Richard Rosenfeld, professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri St. Louis. And Janet Lauritsen is professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

Before we get back to you, Al, I want to bring Janet in, because she hasn't had a chance to jump in here, to talk about gender differences. You study gender differences. Did things change in those years?

Prof. LAURITSEN: Yes, they did. What Karen Heimer, my colleague, and I did was take a look at the decline in crime from a different perspective. We wanted to use survey data to do that rather than rely on police data, because with police data it's impossible to know about the sex of the victim. So we used long-term survey data to study the trends in violence against women, as well as violence against men, and compared the two.

FLATOW: And what did you find?

Prof. LAURITSEN: Well, we found that for both men and women that the trends in robbery, homicide, aggravated assault and simple assault, victimization declined over time, that the most dramatic declines for women didn't occur until 1993. And in fact we observed very little decline in violence against women until that point, whereas for violence against men we noticed that there had been some general declines in the 1970s and 1980s.

FLATOW: Any explanation or thought about why that is?

Prof. LAURITSEN: Not at this point. We're at the point where we're just getting - we're just able to document these differences. It's a tricky issue to measure violence against women, and so we've - we can speculate on some of these things. But certainly we think that the improvement in the economy has had something to do with it, as well as imprisonment rates, the increase in imprisonment rates. But it's also possible that a host of gender specific factors are relevant here.

FLATOW: Such as?

Prof. LAURITSEN: Well, during that period we saw increases in women's labor force participation, and we - it's possible - certainly we have theories to suggest that this might be the case - it's possible that as women entered the labor force, they served something like a civilizing effect on the environments and that the tolerance for interpersonal violence declined as a result. So that would - the logic of that would mean that male violence decreased because of women's presence in their worlds.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LAURITSEN: On the other hand, it may have not had the same effect for women initially. Because by being around men and in these more public environments they may have been exposed to more violence, certainly by strangers and not intimate partners.

FLATOW: It's interesting you say you went out and did your own survey.

Prof. LAURITSEN: No, we didn't - we relied on survey data that's collected by the Department of Justice...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LAURITSEN: ...the Bureau of Justice statistics.

FLATOW: Do you like the kind of data they collect?

Prof. LAURITSEN: Yes, I do.

FLATOW: Is it adequate, the kind - you said that they didn't ask what gender.

Prof. LAURITSEN: No, it's the police data that don't record the gender of the victim.


Prof. LAURITSEN: Only in the cases of homicide do they do that. It's only with survey data where you get the details about the victims, the offenders, and interpersonal violence. The victims report information on that. You get information on the circumstances of the event as well as the consequences of the event. You can't get any of that from police data.

FLATOW: So you don't have to go out and do this yourselves?

Prof. LAURITSEN: Well...

FLATOW: Or researchers have to...

Prof. LAURITSEN: Researchers have to use the data that have been gathered by the Justice Department for this purpose. The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects something called the National Crime Survey and the National Crime Victimization Surveys. It's an ongoing survey since 1973 that was redesigned in 1992. And because they've been doing this for more than 30 years, we now have a rich array of longitudinal data to study these patterns.

FLATOW: Are there enough scientists collecting data on crime?

Prof. LAURITSEN: I would say that there are not as much data-gathering as there is analysis.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. LAURITSEN: But there's certainly not as much investment in studying long-term trends in violence, in my view, in the criminological community.

FLATOW: Al, I interrupted you before. You were going to give us another point where you tried to explain this baffling decrease.

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: Well, one was associated very strongly with the young people in those drug markets and the consequences. The other is a decline, steady decline - even when crime went up in the late '80s - steady decline in violence by people over 30. And that was undoubtedly attributable to the growth of incarceration, where incarceration is a lot more likely to be effective with people in their thirties because that's when they're more likely to continue crime, the ones who are still active in their thirties, as opposed to the teenagers that we keep finding ways to lock up.

FLATOW: Yes, let's go to the audience here.

Ms. MEGAN DAVIDSON(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, I'm Megan Davidson from Durham, North Carolina. I was wondering if you could comment on which populations the decline has had the most significant impact on, both as victims and as criminals. For example, if there have been certain socio-economic or racial ethnic groups that have led the trend in decline in crime, or are there some that have rebuked it or resisted it? And also has the profile of a typical victim changed over that time?

FLATOW: Frank?

Prof. ZIMRING: Well, what I want to say is that, first of all, everybody's crime victimization went down. To the extent that there is a concentration, it isn't that there's any one group that leads it in time first. And for violent crime in the United States, the victims look exactly like the offenders. Young, minority males, particularly African-American males, have homicide experiences as victims that are eight times the whites - as offenders, 10 times. And the only differential that you notice is that the higher a group's victimization rate, the bigger the drop. And what that has meant over the 1990s is that decline in crime was the only public benefit where the poor actually got a larger slice of the pie than the better-off. And that makes some sense. If you're living in New York in a building that has a concierge, it's going to be hard to burglarize. It's the folks like us who don't live in buildings with doormen where, if the burglary rate goes down, we benefit more.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the interesting parallel in Canada here. Who wants to pick that up? Frank, do you want...

Prof. ZIMRING: Well...

FLATOW: I mean it seemed like the same thing going on in Canada.

Prof. ZIMRING: It is an enormous puzzle, and it's a terrible challenge. And the reason it's a challenge is this: Canada and the United States have been in sync in similar cycles of going up and down with violence for 40 years, but what happened in the 1990s was a perfect fit. Crime went down starting in 1991 in the official statistics for nine years in the United States. It went down for the same nine years in Canada. It went down for seven of seven index crimes in the United States. It went down for six of seven in Canada. It went down in Canada for about 75 percent of the magnitude of the American rate.

The problem is that not all the stuff that we thought was driving the crime rate down in the United States was happening in Canada. Our imprisonment rate skyrocketed; theirs went down. We hired more cops; they hired fewer cops. We had the most sustained economic boom in our history; they didn't get back to 1980 levels of unemployment until 1998. So in a sense what you've got north of the border is the control group. But that makes it an awful lot harder to give out first, second and third prizes for what's been driving down crime in the United States if we have our older brother to the north there that didn't have some of those factors at work but had nearly the same level of benefits.

FLATOW: Richard Rosenfeld?

Prof. ROSENFELD: Yeah, I think Frank just makes an awfully important point, that there's been a parochial quality to the assessment of the crime decline in the United States. And Frank's point is to move beyond our borders to look at what's going on elsewhere. It's extraordinarily important.

Having said that, and being intrigued by the Canadian comparison, precisely because Frank's pointing out the parallel declines in crime, it seems to me that the economy does play some role in explaining the parallel drop in crime during the 1990s. The Canadian economy was also expanding during the 1990s, not at the same rate as the U.S. economy, but Canadian GDP per capita grew along with that in the United States. Unemployment rates fell in Canada as they did in the United States, though Frank is quite right, not to the level that - or at the rate they did in the United States. And so I wouldn't count out economic changes as an important part of the story, particularly for economically driven crimes such as motor vehicle theft, robbery, burglary, larceny.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can go to the phones and get a call or two here, talk about stuff that's going on here. Let's go to Detroit, David in Detroit. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, I'm on the faculty at Wayne State. I'm one of those sociologists that you mentioned earlier. I'd like to make two comments. One is - and I think it was noted by one of your speakers - a lot of the discussion is sort of retrospective. It's post hoc.

One of the things that was not mentioned - and maybe I missed it - was the whole notion of community policing and the perceptions in communities as a result.

And as a concrete example during the recent mayoral elections, we undertook some community surveys. And what was striking was a lot of people responded very strongly that their community is safer but most other communities are not, so that the perception of crime continued even though perception of their neighborhoods was one of improving safety.

And a lot of the people indicated that they were more likely than they had been in the past to either call the police or - you know, investigating noises or events - not aggressively because it's still dangerous in Detroit. You can still get shot. But the whole notion of community involvement.

And I think that dimension needs to be discussed because, you know, as communities deal with their own feeling of insecurity economically and physically, you know, their engagement - it's not like in New York and, you know, in the '70s where people looked out the window and watched someone get mugged and then closed their window.

So I think that kind of awareness and engagement and self-help - you know, a city like Detroit is increasingly poor, continues to be poor. It's 86 percent African-American. It's the sort of quintessential city for all the indicators of crime. And yet there is some improvement because people are marshalling sort of community sentiment, if you will.

FLATOW: Anybody want to comment on that? Al?

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: The interaction between the police and the community is clearly important, particularly between police when they're predominantly white and the African-American community.

And there is that sense of tension. And the movement in the '90s of moving towards community policing, finding ways to get the community to deal with the police positively rather than negatively was an important movement.

And to the extent that it makes them feel safer and to the extent that the police get early warning of some of the things that are going to happen, that becomes an important part of the role of interaction rather than drive around in cars and nab people if you find them.

FLATOW: Janet?

Prof. LAURITSEN: I just wanted to make two points. One is the - at the national level we do see that there's been a slight increase in the willingness of people to call the police after they've become victims of crime. We can know that because we have information on crimes that they report to the police, as well as those that they don't.

But the other thing I wanted to point out about community policing is that a lot of other activities took place during the 1990s that involved police and other agencies, especially in terms of how domestic violence incidents were handled. There were multi-agency task forces set up to do those sorts of things. And those might have contributed some as well.

FLATOW: We're talking about crime this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Go to this gentleman at the mic. Hi.

WILLIAM (Audience Member): My name is William from Idyllwild, California. And I'm interested in another aspect of this. It's been talked about here that the crime rates have gone down, and you've mentioned several indicators of that.

My perception is that in some ways crime rates have gone up. And somehow they've gone undetected or it appears to be legal in some way. And yet I see - it seems to be more damage happening to the environment, to our societies. And I'm wondering...

FLATOW: Can you give us a specific?

WILLIAM: Well, for example, where I live in Idyllwild, nearby is the town of Temecula, which is growing like crazy. And there doesn't seem to be any real planning. And so there's a lot of damage being done to the environment.

FLATOW: And so you're talking about a different kind of crime.

WILLIAM: The different sort of crime that's, to me, is criminal and yet somehow has fallen into the category of being legal.

FLATOW: Any comment? Al Blumstein?

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: I think your problem is - the problem is that when we measure crime rates - Frank Zimring mentioned the seven index crimes, a group of violent crimes and a group of property crimes - those are individual incidents that are either reported to the police and the police report nationally or reported by victims as individual victimization events in the victim survey that Janet Lauritsen talked about.

You're talking about a whole variety of behaviors that you don't like. In large part they may not be crimes. But in any event, they're not illegal. And...

FLATOW: Not yet.

Prof. BLUMSTEIN: ...not yet. And they may become illegal. And there's a move to make a whole variety of environmental crimes - environmental damage events - into crimes, but they're of a different sort and they won't be reflected in crime rates.

Drug crimes, for example, are not even counted in crime rates.

Prof. ZIMRING: I would, however, want to say this. And that is that even though you've got four criminologists here, we don't really have a sort of the map of the world in which the only important good and bad news on Earth is criminological.

But what I do want to say - and this is something that we might have glided by at the beginning of this show - is that normally, particularly when police who are hardly disinterested people, are keeping the score with crime rates.

And even in situations where we have had a history of statistical malfeasance what about that good old American paranoid streak? Well maybe the whole crime decline was a myth. Except that it wasn't.

And it is very important to sort of - and indeed we're so paranoid in this country that it was three or four years into the crime decline before criminologists knew we were having one.

We were talking about super predators and blood baths to come well into this decline. And whenever you check the police, whenever you check the figures - for instance, use Janet Lauritsen's surveys to look at official police data - and you try and correct things, the news gets better rather than worse.

There are two crimes that don't look so good as the police reporting them during the '90s, and those are rape and larceny. Well when you ask citizens, they look better. The crime decline, if anything, by the official numbers was understated so that this was a semi-Teutonic shift that took place in the United States. And it was real.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to come back and talk lots more about it, take more questions. Stay with us. We'll take more of your questions on the phones and in the audience here.

Talking about crime this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about crime with my guests, Franklin Zimring, author of, "The Great American Crime Decline," Janet Lauritsen, professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri, Alfred Blumstein, professor of urban systems and operations at Carnegie Mellon, Richard Rosenfeld, professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri.

Our number 1-800-989-8255. Lots of people with lots of questions. Let's go to this gentleman right here.

MATT (Audience Member): Hi. My name's Matt. I'm a student at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. And my question today is we've talked a little bit about the economic boom in the '90s and how that might have played into this.

But I want to know what you guys would think about economic inequality. And I don't have the numbers right in front of me, but if I'm not mistaken economic inequality sort of grew through the '80s and then declined or at least stayed steady through the '90s and then has begun to grow again.

And I'm wondering if that is related at all in your perspectives to this crime decline.

Prof. ZIMRING: Well if it were related to the crime decline, it would be another piece of mystery meat on the table because economic inequality - unlike absolute levels of economic utilization - would predict higher levels of crime rate.

And of course if that were true, New York City is probably the world capital of economic inequality on Earth at this point. The New York Times now tells you what Wall Street investment bank bonuses look like, and what they look like is the gross national product of Central American countries.

And there are a lot of poor people in New York. And we used to say, hey, there's no peace without justice. And that's one of the reasons for crime.

Well crime's down 75 percent in New York City, and that looks an awful lot like peace without justice.

So if there is any indication, it can't be good news in economic inequality. And cross sectionally, those nations that have less of it, have less crime and discord. But over time it hasn't been a leading indicator of bad news on the crime front so far.

FLATOW: Richard Rosenfeld, you're shaking your head.

Prof. ROSENFELD: I'm actually ending up agreeing with my colleague.

FLATOW: In agreement.

Prof. ROSENFELD: Yeah. Cross - across nations, inequality is a potent predictor of crime rates. Across areas within the United States - across cities and states, cross sectionally inequality is an important predictor.

But over time Frank is right. It just doesn't appear to be as important.

FLATOW: All right. Let's take our next person at the microphone. Go ahead.

CHRIS(ph) (Audience Member): I'm Chris. I live here in the Bay area. This may be a little off the wall, but do you think that there should be an expansion of the categories?

I'm thinking of white-collar crime. People who worked at Enron, I'm sure they felt robbed and felt as violated as somebody who maybe is robbed at their home.

So white-collar crime, what do you think about that?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: Also identity theft, because that's on the rise. And that's another area of...

FLATOW: Good question.

CHRIS: ...personal violation.

FLATOW: Janet Lauritsen?

Prof. LAURITSEN: Your question is important because the police department has tended to have static measures of what crime is. The crime victimization survey has recently started to measure identity theft by interviewing people and asking them if they were a victim of that crime.

But there's certainly a whole host of crimes that we don't measure that are important. And one could argue that it's important to measure those so that we can take notice of the problem and then see if efforts to do something about it are effective.


Prof. BLUMSTEIN: There are two important issues here. One is what we measure. And Janet is absolutely right: We ought to do a better job of measuring a lot of other things.

But the other is the expansion of the set of crimes. We have in the last 30 years or so quintupled the incarceration rate in the United States. We have an expanding scope of the criminal justice system that is moving in lots of ways to make - for example, 20 years ago, 25 years ago, there were hardly any drug crime arrests. But drug crimes have now become a major source of arrest and filling of the prisons.

So that I think in terms of enforcement issues I think one wants to be much more careful about what we lock people up for. I certainly would agree with the white-collar crime. But that's crime. And it gets to the issue of investigation whether we pursue it.

FLATOW: Al, are politicians interested in hearing what you have to say, I mean that crime is down and we should spend money on figuring out why? You know, because we're wasting money someplace.

Prof. ZIMRING: Let me contrast the budget of the National Institute of Dental Research, which gets $350 million a year for research on dental matters, and the National Institute of Justice, which is supposed to do research on crime, all aspects of crime, all operation of the criminal justice system, and they get something about $35 million.

So it's a factor of 10 in the way we allocate resources for dental problems in NIH and the amount we allocate for studying the crime phenomenon. It's a realization that the politicians feel that it's so much ideological and political rather than knowledge-driven, even though it should be knowledge-driven.

FLATOW: Janet, do you know? Okay. Richard?

Prof. ROSENFELD: Yeah. Last August, a group of police chiefs got together in Washington, D.C., led by the Police Executive Research Forum, and did squawk loud enough to get the attention of the Justice Department with respect to crime increases occurring across the country.

The Justice Department has responded in a way that I think criminologists might question, but the response has been to send teams of auditors to selected cities to investigate these claims of increases and presumably look at the records and talk with the locals.

Let me simply point out - so there is a response there. If the Department of Labor got news that unemployment was going up in selected cities across the country, the first thing the Department of Labor would not do is send teams of auditors to select cities to count the unemployed or local records of the unemployed. They'd look at the data, and then they would determine whether there were variations along the common pattern that might require some additional local scrutiny.

We don't have the crime monitoring capacity in this country to enable public officials, no matter their political persuasion or party, to take that approach to crime, and what we get then is something I think is more like a 19th century approach to reports of crime increases.

Prof. ZIMRING: Well, I think it's even worse than that, and the reason it's worse than that is you asked, Ira, what gets a politician interested in hearing from a criminologist. The answer is bad news is the thing that does that.

FLATOW: Because they can run on that, or what?

Prof. ZIMRING: No, because that gives them a problem to solve.

FLATOW: I see.

Prof. ZIMRING:: The reason the crime decline went under the radar, except for people who were claiming credit for it, was that when things are getting better in the crime area, there are no public motivations to study it. In fact, what happened in the 1990s is one of the two huge events that should be studied very carefully.

But Americans think crime is important, but they don't think it's an important area for scientific inquiry, and those are two very different things. In many ways, the ways in which crime are important ideologically and emotionally militate against a decent scientific presence and militate against resources.

FLATOW: Let's take one question here from the audience.

Ms. HELENE SPIN(ph) (Audience Member): Hello, Helene Spin from Paramus, New Jersey. In the 1990s there was a significant number of new pharmacologicals available to treat manic depression and other aggressive behaviors. What impact do you believe that has had on crime?

FLATOW: Can you study that?

Prof. ZIMRING:: Well, yes and no. I don't think it had a major impact in the United States, in part because the kids who were at highest risk for violent crime are at highest risk also not to get the medical attention that would send those things (unintelligible) and impact on things like robbery and homicide rates.

So I think if you were going to try and take the fingerprints of that kind of change by looking at general crime statistics, you couldn't find it. What you could do is take a look at jail populations and see whether particular psychological profiles were less present there, and you could also look at a lot of other countries, because the thing is that in the pharmacopoeia, there is no border between the United States and Canada, and there's no border between the United States and Western Europe.

So if there is a general phenomenon like that that is having an influence on crime, it's something that we ought to be able to see outside of the American border.

FLATOW: Well, we have to say goodbye to Rich Rosenfeld and Alfred Blumstein because they have press conferences to attend. I want to thank you gentlemen for taking time to be with us today.

We're going to continue questioning our other panelists. Let's go the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Dennis in Angola, Indiana. Hi, Dennis.

DENNIS (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi there.

DENNIS: I was wondering about if the researchers have looked at the potential media impact. We've got cable TV, satellite TV in everybody's homes. They broadcast "America's Most Wanted," "COPS," "CSI," programs that show the science of criminal investigation. Do you think this acts as a deterrence? Have they looked into that, showing people that they can't get away with it? Has that stopped or, you know, helped to lower crime?

Prof. ZIMRING: You know, the first problem with that and with any kind of media influence is that the clearance rate on television has always been 100 percent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ZIMRING: Now, we have a lot more murders on television these days, but to the extent that it was a sort of a deterrence feature, vicariously induced - and it is kind of sweet because, you see, mass media generally gets blamed whenever there's bad news on the criminological front.

When kids get arrested for terrible crimes, it's video games, violence, dirty records or bad TV shows. So there is a certain symmetry to saying, hey, maybe it's "America's Most Wanted." But again, if that were true, then it's not just Canada and the United States, because you see, when American television sneezes, the entire developed world catches cold.

I just came back from Australia, but if you turn to a commercial television station there, you're going to feel right at home from Angola, Indiana because it's the same shows.

So you'd expect a much more general phenomenon if it were the question of mass media deterrence.

FLATOW: We're talking about crime this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Janet Lauritsen, did you want to jump in?

Prof. LAURITSEN: I was only going to add that I know that the effect of television has been pretty strong on the number of majors in undergraduate and graduate programs who study criminology.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Ms. LAURITSEN: Yes, it has. It's one of the true growing academic fields. The problem has been that when students come to those programs, they think that what they're going to learn to do is to solve crimes, and that's not what you do in criminology programs. You learn about the criminal justice system and its operations, you learn how to study crime. You learn how to treat it as an objective phenomenon, not as a crime-solving - in a crime-solving capacity.

Prof. ZIMRING: So you must be passing out some of those anti-depressants that one of the earlier questions was asking.

FLATOW: Let's see if I've got time for one more question from the audience.

DOUG (Audience Member): Hi, Doug from Champaign, Illinois. My question is, I've heard there's a strong - I've heard the case made, there's a strong correlation between the legalization and increase of abortions in the 1970s and from there on and the decrease and decline in the '90s that you are speaking about. And also there's a second part to this question.

Isn't it hard to go from something like this, especially when it's a controversial issue, and say there's a correlation and then jump from a correlation to a cause? Because we're talking about a society where you can't, you know, change the variables like you could in science and, you know, see what happens.

Prof. ZIMRING: There are very few controlled experiments, and let me just say that the abortion question wasn't one of those controlled experiments. That was a theory that came up, and it's a very intriguing article that John Donohue(ph) and Steve Levitt(ph) published in 2001. And the notion is that the timing fits. That is, about 20 years after Roe v. Wade the crime rate started going down. That's why the had the idea.

FLATOW: What was the idea? What's the connection?

Prof. ZIMRING: The connection is - well, they said there were three things. One, women were having fewer babies, but that turned out to be a small matter because they weren't having many fewer babies. But secondly, that women could time births better, and they could therefore have fewer high-risk births. That was the theory, but the only way it was tested was by looking at crime statistics in the 1990s, and your point about correlation is well put.

FLATOW: Is there any way to make this all more scientific?

Prof. ZIMRING: Oh there sure is, and unfortunately, it's bad news for a high-magnitude abortion effect. The first thing that you can do is find out, well, how many fewer high-risk babies were born in the '70s, if they're not going to be murderers in the '90s.

And when you take the same data sets that they're talking about - that is to say children born to single women - went up through the '70s. Children born to single women 15 to 19 went up during the 1970s. Children born in poverty stopped going down in the '70s and '80s and stayed stable. So none of the risk factors were there. That's one way to do it.

The next way to do it is to see whether that was a period of discrete drops in female fertility, but in fact that had started in the 1960s, in the early 1960s, with the IUD and the birth-control pill. So it was a very even decline with 1973 not being a big issue.

But finally, when you're asking is there a good scientific way to test this, you bet there is, because you see, what happened is abortion got legalized all over the developed West. Go to Western Europe, which I did in the book that you have been so kind to flog for me, and what you find is that the age-specific arrest data, which is the fingerprint of an abortion effect they think in the United States, neither that nor the declines happened in Western European countries where it should have if it was an abortion artifact.

FLATOW: All right. We're run out of time. Very interesting discussion. I want to thank my remaining panelists: Franklin Zimring, author of the book I'm flogging, "The Great American Crime Decline," also professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley; Janet Lauritsen, professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri St. Louis. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

Ms. LAURITSEN: Thank you.

Prof. ZIMRING: Thank you.

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