- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2010

Reported incidents of both violent and property crimes dropped again in the U.S. during 2009, closing the books on a decade that generally saw continued decreases in crime rates that began to fall in the mid-1990s, according to FBI statistics released Monday.

The continuing drops appear to undermine an ominous and oft-repeated prediction that crime would worsen as a result of a pitiable economy.

The relationship between crime and the economy is hotly contested among social scientists. But several told The Washington Times that the relationship is far more complicated than a simple correlation.

“Obviously, the numbers in the past several years have belied any statements like that,” said Marilyn Rubin, who directs the master’s of public administration program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “I think it would be very naive for someone to look for a one-to-one relationship in something as complicated as crime rates.”

Ms. Rubin has received a grant from the FBI to study what factors correlate with the arrest rates of people between the ages of 16 and 24. Among many other factors, the study will seek to assess the economic impact by analyzing unemployment rates.

Some social scientists have posited that any correlation between the economy and crime would likely be indirect. For example, a poor economy could lead to budget cuts for police departments and other crime-prevention programs, which could help to allow crime to flourish.

Richard Gendron, an associate professor of sociology at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., noted that many different — and competing — arguments have been put forward to explain the crime drops.

Mr. Gendron noted that some experts point to increased incarceration rates as a cause; others credit a decline in the use of crack cocaine. Related to that are those who say drug dealers have consolidated markets, leading to less violence as a result of “turf” disputes.

“Yet another explanation is anchored in improvements in policing, such as community policing,” he said.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. agreed with that. While acknowledging many reasons behind the decline, Mr. Holder highlighted “smarter policing practices and investments in law enforcement.”

The attorney general pointed to federal money provided to pay for local police jobs, specifically those funded as part of the $787 billion economic-stimulus package passed last year. Part of the stimulus included $1 billion for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a police-hiring program that is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s criminal-justice policy.

The Clinton administration, which created COPS, similarly credited the program for drops in crime during the 1990s. Critics say the program is more pork than policy, and it was cut extensively during the Bush administration.

But reported crime continued to fall during the past decades, even as reports of specific crimes spiked in certain years before leveling off and ultimately decreasing in subsequent years.

Murders, for example, increased by 3.5 percent during 2006, only to decrease by 1 percent the following year and to drop 5 percent during 2008. That percentage fell again in 2009 with a 7.3 percent reduction in murders.

The report, released by the FBI, was based on information provided by 17,985 law-enforcement agencies, which the bureau said covers 96 percent of the nations population.

While considered the pre-eminent report on crime in the U.S., the FBI statistics on reported crime does have some limits. Its data is based on crimes reported to police, meaning it does not reflect crimes that may have been committed but were not reported.

Further, because the report relies on information reported from individual law-enforcement agencies, it is possible for an agency to improperly classify certain crimes as less serious in order to improve the agencies overall statistics. For example, an agency could potentially lower the number of “aggravated” assaults it reports to the FBI by simply classifying some as less serious “simple” assaults.

According to the report, violent crime dropped 5.3 percent last year — including murder, which fell by 7.3 percent, robbery by 8 percent, aggravated assault by 4.2 percent and rape by 2.6 percent. Property crimes fell 4.6 percent — including motor-vehicle thefts, which were down by 17.1 percent, larceny by 4 percent and burglary by 1.3 percent.

The report said victims of property crime aside from arson lost an estimated $15.2 billion during 2009.

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