- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Economic downturn and criminal upswing. Not necessarily. Research shows that crime waves — at least the violent variety — don’t usually follow in the wake of economic bear markets such ours.

“Many people think that ‘of course when the economy goes south, crime goes north,’ but that’s simply not true,” says David Kennedy, professor of anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

For example, during the Great Depression, crime rates were low even though the economy hit rock bottom, with throngs of people losing their jobs and hitting soup kitchens.

In sharp contrast, in the 1920s — a time of great prosperity at the end of the Gilded Age — crime rates were high.

Why?

Prohibition. Murders and other violent crimes were linked to the illegal, underground brewing and selling of alcohol. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 - in the midst of the desperate Great Depression - violent crime dropped significantly, Mr. Kennedy says.

“The economy hit a historic low, but Prohibition was repealed,” he says.

In general, violent crime in the 20th and 21st centuries has had much more to do with the microeconomic market surrounding illegal substance use than anything associated with the mainstream, macroeconomic market.

Another example of this phenomenon is the heroin epidemic in the 1960s and ‘70s. The economy was up, but the surging heroin market drove crime rates higher.

Most recently, in urban areas, the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s drove crime - particularly violent crimes such as aggravated assault and homicides - through the roof.

In the District, for example, 454 homicides were committed in 1993.

“That was not about the economy. That was about crack,” Mr. Kennedy says.

Compare that to 185 homicides this year, as of Dec. 30.

That’s not to say the economy has nothing to do with violent crime, says Steven Raphael, an economist and professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

It’s just that as a driver of crime, the economy pales in comparison to other factors, he says.

For example, the increased incidence of incarceration in the past three decades is major factor in the decreasing levels of violent crime, Mr. Raphael says.

In 1970, 110 people in every 100,000 were incarcerated; today, that number is 500 in every 100,000.

Peter Reuter, an economist and professor in the School of Public Policy and Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland, calls the decrease in violent crime “an unintended collateral benefit of incarceration.”

“Obviously, when you’re behind bars, you’re off the market. You’re not getting drugs and committing crimes,” Mr. Reuter says.

There are other factors in the overall downward trajectory in violent crimes in the past decades: the higher percentage of foreign-born people residing in the United States (foreign-borns are less likely to commit violent crimes, according to Mr. Raphael) and the legalization of abortion, a controversial theory put forth by Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the acclaimed book “Freakonomics.”

Mr. Levitt’s theory is based on two premises: Unwanted children are at greater risk for crime, and legalized abortion leads to a reduction in the number of unwanted children.

Any temporary upswing in crime caused by the economy will be dwarfed by the overall downward trajectory, Mr. Raphael says.

“I think we’ll see a modest rise in property crimes,” Mr. Raphael says, “but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think we’ll see much of a change.”

The drug markets themselves are not likely to be affected much by a down economy, either, Mr. Reuter says.

“Recreational use might be affected, but that’s a very small part of the market,” he says.

Heavy-duty drug users - who make up more than 80 percent of total drug use - are outside the labor market to begin with, and their behavior - such as engaging in robberies and burglaries to fund their drug use - is unlikely to change no matter how good or bad the economy gets.

“They’re completely detached from the mainstream economy,” Mr. Reuter says.

Along with the possible rise in property crimes, criminologists and economists expect a rise in domestic violence. Mr. Raphael also suggests that crimes committed by a certain subgroup - young men on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder - might go up.

“They are the most sensitive to macroeconomic changes,” Mr. Raphael says.

Other than that, we shouldn’t see any big jumps in overall crime, he says.

Adds Mr. Kennedy: “Crime is just not as economically motivated as people think.”

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