Volunteerism and the Decline of Violent Crime

By Friedman, Warren | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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Volunteerism and the Decline of Violent Crime

Friedman, Warren, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


This paper makes four general points. There are organized community anti-crime activities going on across the country. Neighborhood residents, acting together through community organizations, have made a serious contribution to the decline in violent crime nationally. If we invest in and support, the work of these citizens and their organizations, their activity can become more widespread, more sustained and can have a larger impact on violent crime. As an anti-crime strategy, this is the most effective, democratic, and humane path available to America--the one most likely to make communities safer and friendlier places to live.


Violent crime reached its peak in the U.S. in 1993. That year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 4.2 million violent crimes in this country.(1) In 1994, there were 75,000 fewer(2) By 1996, there were nearly 930,000 fewer violent crimes than in 1993.(3) Although rape, robbery, assault, and homicide have declined at different rates, they are all down.(4) When looked at as a group, violent crimes are at a twenty-three year low, the lowest since the agency has been collecting data.(5)

This encouraging national trend does not mean that violent crime is down everywhere nor that Americans are relaxed and feeling confident in their ability to solve the problem of crime. According to Roper organization polling:

   crime still tops the list of concerns about the nation's welfare, and crime
   worries are well above the levels of the 1980s or 1970s.... The share of
   adults who name crime among their top two or three [concerns] rose sharply
   in the early 1990s.... Between 1991 and 1995, the percentage almost
   doubled, from 29 percent to a record high of 54 percent. Although the
   current share is 5 percentage points lower than the peak, crime still ranks
   much higher than other issues....(6)

America's unease with the good news about crime is not paranoia. The trend is fairly recent and there have been other promising declines that have lasted a few years before the violence began increasing once again. The tentativeness of the news about violent crime has stimulated at least two significant discussions, partly captured in these Chicago Tribune headlines: "Is the Crime Drop a Blip, For Real, or a Ticking Bomb?" and "Violent Crime Takes a Tumble, Though Reasons are Murky."(7)

One question raised here' is this decline part of a long term trend, like the decrease in property crime, which has been evident since 1975, or just a temporary dip that will reverse itself?(8) A second question: what is causing this decline? This causal issue, not so much murky as multi-faceted, is related to the first. If we can figure out what is responsible for the good news, we can, perhaps, do more of what works and increase the likelihood that the trend towards a less violent society is long term. We can also apply our understanding of what is working to some locations where the news is not so good.


There are a host of reasons suggested for the decline: low unemployment, fewer young men in the crime-prone age group, stable and less violent drug markets, fewer handguns on the street, reduced alcohol and drug consumption, more people serving longer prison sentences, smarter policing, community policing, and community participation in anti-crime efforts.

Most of these explanations have policy implications that beckon elected officials to invest tax dollars in particular strategies. As Roper's findings indicate, though the public is not yet convinced by the good news, the public is hungry for safer communities and seems receptive to solutions. So it is proper that there should be public debate about why crime is declining. It is critical that we invest energy and tax dollars to achieve this public good.

But it is also clear that data are subject to varying interpretations, causation is hard to identify with certainty and the debate is complicated by a significant amount of individual and institutional self-interest in one argument or another.

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