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America: Explaining the reduction in crime

Murder rates in America plunged 43 percent from the peak in 1991 to 2001, reaching the lowest levels in 35 years. The FBI violent and property crime indexes fell 34 and 29 percent, respectively, over that same period. There has been no shortage of media hypotheses to explain the drop in crime after the fact. The single most frequent explanation is innovative policing strategies, yet this is not one of the main causes of the observed reduction in crime [1]. The crime decline is also frequently attributed to increased imprisonment, changes in the market for crack cocaine, the aging of the population, tougher gun control laws, the strong economy and increases in the number of police. However, there appears to be only 4 strong contenders for the reduction in violent crime in America [1] between 1991 and 2001.

The four factors that account for virtually all of the observed US decline in crime between 1991 and 2001 are: increases in the number of police, the rising prison population, the waning crack epidemic and the legalization of abortion.

The six factors that did not effect crime rates cited by media organisations are the strong economy of the 1990s, changing demographics, better policing strategies, gun control laws, laws concerning the concealment of weapons and the increased use of capital punishment.

Over the period of 1991 to 2001, the ten largest circulating newspapers in the US reported the reduction in crime over the same period to be due to innovative policing strategies 52 times, increased reliance on prisons 47 times, changes in crack/other drug markets 33 times, aging of the population 32 times, tougher gun control laws 32 times, strong economy 28 times, increased number of police 26 times. All other explanations totalled 34 times.

It appears that in the US, the simplistic accounts of why crime fell offered by so-called experts to the media is quite misleading. Of the eight reasons most frequently cited in newspapers, only three of the factors were truly important. A fourth factor, legalized abortion, did not receive a single mention. And the allocation of resources for reducing crime is often targeted by such media pronouncements, so the money may very well be misspent. There is no reason to expect anything different in the UK.

In the UK, abortion has been legalized for some time, so is unimportant for future crime reduction policies. We are currently researching drug problems in the UK and the parallels between the UK and USA, so at the moment we are unable to say what drugs policy, if any, could reduce crime. However, what is clear from these findings is that an increase in custodial sentences and the number of police should be the priority of any government policy if they want to reduce crime. Furthermore, if we are to reduce criminal activity, we must address the media's incorrect coverage of crime, thus preventing the inevitable ill-thought-out headline grabbing policies our politicians are so keen to announce.

[1] S. Levitt. 2004. "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18:1 pp 163–190.


I am suprised that I have to write you to tell you that you can't copy someone elses writing and pass it off as your own. You are not Stephen Levitt, and you did not give him any credit, even though you copied his work. This is illegal, and I suggest that you put the words that you BLANTANTLY COPPIED AND GIVE HIM DUE CREDIT.

As you may be aware, this website draws from many sources; some of it is our own work, and other parts are from academics that work in this field. This is a website aimed at making the case that prison works by reviewing the available evidence. We do not have the time or resources to do this based entirely on our own analysis, as this effort is entirely voluntary.

This particular article started out as one correctly referenced article, which became too large for presentation on the website. As a result of the somewhat sloppy job on the splicing, the references were lost in this particular part. However, they are still contained within the pages linked in this article. You will also notice that Prof. Levitt is directly referred to in the summary argument for prison works - linked directly from the main navigation menu for the website. If we in the business of not attributing work, then neither of these would be present.

As a result of your comment, I will ensure that the references are restored. This particular article has required some work since the outset, but time restraints have lead to it being put off. I will address this too.

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