Soft thinking jeopardizes historic reduction in violent crime

The crime statistics for 2014 keep coming in. They present a mixed picture. As I noted here, the murder rate in Washington DC was alarmingly high. So too in Los Angeles. It also increased in Indianapolis, Austin, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Memphis.

The murder rate dropped, though, in Chicago, Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Columbus, Ohio. And in New York City, site of a great policing success story, the murder rate continued its decline.

Though the 2014 picture is mixed, the long-term trend is unambiguous: the murder and violent crime rates have declined dramatically. In 1991, 758 violent crimes were committed per 100,000 people. 2013 saw that rate halved (367.9 violent crimes per 100,000), according to the FBI.

Will we see a reversal of this trend? The answer depends on the reasons for the decline and the extent to which future policies disturb these reasons.

The Washington Post, citing Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, cites four reasons for the decline in violent crime. The first is long prison sentences, a policy that many states turned to in the 1990s.

Today, there is much clamor from liberals, libertarians, and some conservatives for a move to shorter sentences. Since no one seems to believe much in prison rehabilitation — the people calling for shorter sentences insist that prison creates hardened criminals — it seems virtually certain that shorter sentences will lead to a spike in violent crime.

The second factor that, according to Fox, has caused violent crime to plummet is improved community policing strategies. It would be nice if President Obama, Eric Holder, and Mayor de Blasio would acknowledge the role that good policing has played in improving public safety.

Fox cites the strategy of “sending cops to places where crime is more likely to occur.” Unfortunately, this strategy will be hard to sustain in the face of criticism that the police is bearing down too heavily on Blacks.

Fox also credits advanced police technology such as video surveillance and acoustic sensors. But such devices raise concerns for “civil libertarians” on the left and the right.

The third factor Fox cites is a changing drug market. The cost of heroin apparently is near an historic low. Moreover, the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1990s and early 2000s is said to have ended.

The end of the crack cocaine epidemic coincides with criminal law policy that targeted this drug. The policy generated howls of protests. We are told in no uncertain terms that this was a racist policy because it entailed tougher sentences for crack cocaine offenses than for those involving powder cocaine, a substance more likely to be used by Whites.

It seems, however, that reining in crack cocaine use has helped reduce violent crime. And, quite apart from any impact on violence, the end of the crack cocaine epidemic has undoubtedly improved the quality of life in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Not bad for a “racist” policy.

The fourth factor cited by Fox is one that should never be overlooked in discussions of crime rates — changing demographics. An aging population like ours is less likely to commit crime.

Obviously, this factor is independent of public policy. However, the first three factors are very much policy-dependent. And the shifts in sentiment that our elites seem to be experiencing are likely to produce policies that may well end two decades of decline in violent crime.

STEVE adds: In thinking about this whole matter, let’s not leave out this important fact: Gun deaths for police officers soared 56 percent in 2014.  Almost sounds like an “epidemic.”  But not the one Al Sharpton wants you to talk about.

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