No silver bullet solution to flying bullets

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When crimes rates drop for a year or two, nobody can really say why. It could be freakish good luck.


When crime rates drop steadily for more than 20 years, as they have in Chicago and across the country, you might suspect the underlying forces driving the trend would become clear. But, in fact, the experts continue to scratch their heads.

About all they can say for sure is that it’s complicated. No single factor, such as sending more people to prison, explains why crime rates have plummeted across the country. And, so it follows, we should be wary of any pandering politician who pushes a single tempting solution — such as sending more people to prison — to drive crime rates down further. Better to look at the big picture.

In Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times, Michael Lansu of Homicide Watch Chicago reported that murder rates dropped again in 2014, though the number of shootings was up. That’s a curious inconsistency that suggests the bad guys either took poorer aim in 2014 or, more likely, our city’s remarkably skilled police, paramedics, nurses and doctors did an even better job of saving lives.

But the more significant statistic in Lansu’s report is that Chicago’s murder tally has dropped sharply and steadily from 943 in 1992 to 633 in 2000 to just over 400 in each of the last two years. That’s a remarkable drop of about 54 percent in 22 years.

To be sure, the decline in violent crime has been uneven across the city, and the residents of too many neighborhoods, such as Austin and West Englewood, are still afraid to walk outdoors at night. But when violent crime rates citywide and nationwide are slashed by more than half, that is excellent news.

If only anybody could explain it.

A trendy explanation for a while was that the legalization of abortion was responsible for much of the drop in crime, with a decline in unwanted children resulting in fewer criminally inclined young men. But, as Dana Goldstein points out in a story for The Marshall Project, an excellent new non-profit journalism website, the numbers don’t sync up. Crime rates surged even into the early 1990s, though abortion had been legal for 20 years.

Other explanations, so far unproven, include the greater use of drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin to control the behavior of unruly young people, the decreased use of crack cocaine, and the reduction of lead (known to cause aggressive behavior) in the environment.

Goldstein notes that the nation’s big crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to do with the baby boomer generation. There were more young men — the folks most likely to commit crimes — than ever before. But the graying of the baby boomers since then doesn’t explain the declining crime rates of the last two decades, a period during which the number of young men has not changed much.

An obvious explanation for the decline in crime might be the higher incarceration rates that began in the 1970s when legislators extended prison sentences for many crimes. Some criminologists say prison accounts for about 25 percent of the crime decline during the 1990s. But if that’s the case, how does one explain the continued drop in crime in New York City in the 2000s even as the state’s prison population dipped? And juvenile crime has continued to drop in California despite a massive emptying out of its juvenile prisons over the past six years.

Could it be the economy? When times are good and people can find honest work, crime goes down, right? That seemed to be the story in the 1990s. But even after the Great Recession of 2008 kicked in, crime rates continued to drop — and in fact dropped faster.

Policing strategies would seem to be a factor, but that’s hard to nail that down, too. Goldstein notes that three cities that have experienced the largest drops in crime — Washington, D.C., New York and San Diego — employ vastly different policing methods.

Our guess is that what we’ve been seeing over the last 20 years is a perfect storm — or, rather, a less imperfect storm — of demographics, social forces and public policies driving down our nation’s crime rate.

Complex problems require complex solutions. There is no silver bullet to the flying bullets.

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