Why Crime Declines

By Benson, Bruce L. | Ideas on Liberty, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Why Crime Declines


Benson, Bruce L., Ideas on Liberty


Crime in America has fallen since 1991. In that year, the reported crime rate compiled in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program peaked at 5,897.8 per 100,000 population. Then it dropped almost continuously, reaching 4,922.7 in 1997. Preliminary statistics for 1998 indicate a 7 percent drop below the '97 figure. (Monthly statistics suggest that the trend continued in 1999.)

Why? Politicians have ready answers. They claim credit through their support of prison construction, longer mandated sentences, greater police funding, and so on. They also claim credit for the strong economy and low levels of unemployment, which reduce the incentives to commit property crimes. Police point to their efforts in the war on drugs or to innovations in policing strategies such as "community policing." Criminologists cite many of these same causes, along with the changing age distribution of the population: the number of crime-prone young males has been shrinking thanks to aging and reduced birth rates.

No doubt many and probably all of these things work together to help explain falling crime rates, but there is another, perhaps even more important factor that has gone largely unnoticed. Private citizens have responded to the fear of crime by investing increasing amounts of their own time and money in crime prevention.

Private-sector responses to crime have taken many forms, including crime watch and other types of neighborhood or building watching, patrolling and escort arrangements, installation of alarms and other detection devises, improved locks and lighting, investments in self-protection such as martial-arts training and guns, and employment of private security personnel. All these activities have been increasing dramatically as crime rates have fallen. Information on these activities is relatively scarce, but a number of studies conducted over the years give some indication of the trends.1 Consider private security markets, for example.

Crime rates have actually been trending down since 1980 (after fluctuating through the 1970s) except for the upturn in 1985-91, during a dramatic change in criminal-justice policy nationwide.2 There were 5,950 reported crimes per 100,000 population in 1980 versus 5,175.3 in 1984.

Private security employment has accelerated since 1970. A 1970 estimate put the number of privately employed security personnel in the United States at roughly equal to the number of government, or public, police. Since then, public police employment, unlike private security employment, has not changed much. In 1990 there were roughly 2.5 private security personnel (about 1.5 million total) to every public police officer.3 This ratio is rapidly approaching 3 to 1, if it has not already reached that level.4 Thus, in 1990 an estimated $52 billion was spent for private security services in the United States compared to about $30 billion for federal, state, and local police.5

The private security market apparently is the second fastest growing industry in the United StateS,6 but increasing employment of private security personnel is only part of the story. Going back to 1970 again, a study found that the use of security equipment was increasing at about 11 percent per year,7 but the growth rate in expenditures on security equipment reached an estimated 15 percent in 1990 when they rose to an estimated $17 billion.8

Provision of residential alarm systems (already the most frequently used component of security programs for business) provides one example of the spread of such security technology. It is estimated that at least 10 percent of the homes in the United States were connected to central alarm systems in 1990,(9) up from one percent in 1970.(10) One estimate by Leading Edge Reports suggests that total sales of central alarm station services rose by 36.9 percent (from $5.26 million to $7.20 million) between 1987 and 1989 (during the upsurge in the war on drugs).11

While statistics are not readily available, it appears that this trend has accelerated through the 1990s. …

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