Magazine article Corrections Forum

Crunching Numbers: Crime and Incarceration at the End of the Millennium

Magazine article Corrections Forum

Crunching Numbers: Crime and Incarceration at the End of the Millennium

Article excerpt

Decline in Property Crime

As measured by the BJS National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), property crime has been declining in this country for at least 25 years (see figure 1). This type of crime, which includes larceny, burglary, theft in general, and motor vehicle theft, has fallen 58 percent since 1975.

Burglary rates closely resemble property crime rates overall in their steep decline (see figure 2).

This pattern has not been duplicated in other countries. In Canada for example although property crime has declined steadily since 1992, the decline is not nearly as steep as in the United States, and the longer term pattern in Canada is essentially flat -- or has not changed.

Victimization Survey Comparisons

England and Wales use a victimization survey quite similar to the NCVS, which facilitates comparison of crime data with the United States. Not only has property crime been increasing in England and Wales, but the rates-once much lower than in the United States--now exceed ours. For most of the period since 1981, burglary in England and Wales has been increasing, not declining, with a turnaround starting in 1992 or 1993 (see figure 3), a situation approximately the same as in Canada. In rates of motor vehicle theft, the patterns in the United States much more closely resemble those of England and Wales (see figure 4).

What is going on here? First, it is important to note that national trends are an aggregate of State and local trends, which may be moving in entirely different directions in some parts of the country than the overall numbers. So it is possible that in a particular State or community the trends are quite a bit different from the national trend. But on a nationwide basis, the differences among countries are palpable. In London, burglaries are a high-priority focus of the police and are frequent topics of newspaper articles and even announcements on public transit.

The downward shift in burglary and theft in the United States has attracted very little attention from researchers--especially compared to that given to trends in violent crime. To be sure, the reason for the downturn is difficult to understand if we accept the idea that it is not possible to find a valid explanation by pointing to something that happened in the United States but also happened in other countries.

Explanations for Decline

What comes to mind as possible explanations? On the side of potential victims: More window and door alarms and more secure windows and doors; better illumination in yards and driveways and inside homes when no one is present; more private security and gated communities; less cash being carried because of greater use of credit cards and ATM cards for financial transactions. On the side of potential perpetrators: More drug dealers in prison; more criminals turning to robbery and lucrative Internet crime instead of burglary. And, of course, better research and evaluation!

When U.S. News and World Report examined these patterns, it favored this explanation for the drop in crime: People are more likely now than in the past to be home watching cable TV and videotapes, rather than being out on the town, so the nighttime burglar has fewer opportunities.

Rape: Is It Really Declining?

People generally have two different reactions when they see the data on rape trends. Some say, when they see the decline reported by the NCVS (see figure 5), obviously our policies concerning violence against women are working-women are learning how to handle threatening situations or are aware of the alternatives for avoiding them.

Others disagree, believing that the downward trend is illusory, that it means only that women are becoming less willing to report rape and even more reluctant to mention it to the NCVS interviewers. The NCVS data are based on interviews, not police reports, and the respondents also are asked if they reported the crime to the police. …

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