If you follow the news, you've heard that violent crime rates are down all across the country.
I know it is hard to believe after news of mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado and the current murder spree in Chicago -- but facts are facts. The instances of crime have been slowly and surely declining for the last two decades. Back in 1994, a Gallup survey found that more than 50 percent of Americans cited crime as the nation's biggest problem. In another Gallup survey conducted last year that number was down to just 2 percent.
I keep wondering -- why? What caused the rate of murder, rape, armed robbery and other violence-inspired crimes to plummet so dramatically? Did we just get lucky or is there a specific reason (or reasons) for the improvement?
Opinions are as varied as the number of criminologists and scholars researching the issue. The theories range from the conventional to the controversial. Most criminologists agree on a group of factors that caused the decline.
• The U.S. incarceration rate is among the highest in the world. Plainly put, we have taken record numbers of criminals off the street.
• The increased number of police on the beat and pro-active policing. Bottom line, it is now harder to commit a crime. Citizens are more alert these days and their calls to 911 bring immediate help. Also, surveillance cameras are everywhere, and they are believed to be a real deterrent.
• The "graying of America." Young people commit most of the crime and the U.S population has gotten progressively older.
• There are now many more social programs for youth which help keep young people occupied and focused on positive goals.
• The government's stepped-up aid programs -- such as unemployment, food stamps and rent controlled housing -- means recipients are less likely to turn to financial or stress-motivated crime.
But there are lots of other theories from learned sources about why America continues to experience a drop in violent crime. Some might seem farfetched to you, others may be hard to swallow.
Rick Nevin, a Virginia economist who consults with the National Center for Healthy Housing (among other studious pursuits) maintains that the decline in crime can be traced to the U.S. ban on lead in gasoline and house paints. In a series of graphs he demonstrates how the drop in the crime rate coincides perfectly with the coming-of-age of the first generation protected from lead exposure. The theory has not been widely researched because how do you study a group that has not been exposed to something? But, lead has long been associated with violent behavior and Nevin insists his research proves a link between the lead ban and a drop in crime not only here in the U.S. but in nine other countries as well.
Richard Rosenfeld, the former president of the American Society of Criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, also cites the decline in opportunities for criminal behavior. He told reporters a while back that, "During severe recessions like the current one, with chronically high unemployment rates, more people are at home and can act as guardians for their home." That translates into fewer home burglaries and property crimes. Rosenfeld also says the poor economy has left people with less cash and valuables, making criminals less likely to target them for robbery or theft.
Some ardent NRA and other gun owners say the decline has occurred because so many Americans have chosen to arm themselves and have, therefore, created safer streets and homesteads. Anti-gun proponents point to the increase in the number of gun laws as being the reason violent crimes are on the downswing. There are no firm statistics to back up either theory.
Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago offers what is probably the most controversial hypothesis for the two-decade long decrease in violent crimes. Levitt believes that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion in January 1973 has had more to do with the drop in crime than any other factor. I have to admit, I winced when I read that. So I kept reading to learn more about his theory.
Levitt and co-author John Donohue published a controversial paper that highlighted the year 1992 when crime in the U.S. first started to inch downward. They noted that it was a full 18 years after the high court's historic decision on Roe v. Wade. Levitt and Donohue theorize that the legalization of abortion resulted in fewer unwanted children who would have gone on to commit youthful violent crimes.
The pair studied the states that had been the earliest adopters of legalized abortion -- Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, Oregon and Washington State -- and found that those locations began to experience steep drops in the violent crime rate 18 years later. They also found that those states with the highest abortion rates experienced the greatest reduction in crime.
So to the question, "What is responsible for the reduction in crime in the United States?" Clearly, it's some sort of a combination of the various theories floating around. So take your pick. Please, make a pick because if Gallup survey numbers hold and only 2 percent of Americans continue to see crime as a problem, we're in trouble. Our complacency could easily allow crime rates to inch back up again carrying with it all manner of human suffering.