Thirty one summers ago, I spent ten weeks in inner city Boston interning at a Christian housing ministry. I spent two days a week as a day camp counselor at a park and two others working at a food bank. Every Wednesday, the eleven other interns and I attended seminars about urban issues. The most memorable one featured a retired South Boston high school principal who was one of the central figures in the 70s busing riots.
The first night, my fellow interns selected me “Most Likely to Get Mugged.” Fast forward to mid-summer when I was walking home from the food bank to the subway station through a dicey part of Jamaica Plains. Clean cut suburban dude with a college backpack, I may as well had a “Jump me!” sign on it. Stupidly, I walked right through a large, open fire hydrant water fight.
I realized the girlfriends were watching from a large porch far too late. Now. I’m. Screwed. A few of the young men, as if to fulfill my fellow interns’ prophecy, sprinted towards me, at which point, I did my best Carl Lewis impersonation. The only problem was I ran right into the heart of a tenement building courtyard. I’m still not sure how I got out of there and onto the subway in one piece. Maybe I should have been a punt returner.
According to The Economist, America’s cities have become vastly safer, and the rest of the developed world has followed. “From Japan to Estonia,” they report, “property and people are now safer than at almost any time since the 1970s.” Some highlights:
• Confounding expectations, the recession has not interrupted the downward trend. New data show the homicide rate for young Americans is at a 30-year low.
• Some crimes have all but died out. Last year there were just 69 armed robberies of banks, post offices, and other buildings in England and Wales, compared with 500 a year in the 1990s. In 1990 some 147,000 cars were stolen in New York. Last year fewer than 10,000 were.
• There is no single cause of the decline; rather, several have coincided. Western societies are growing older, and most crimes are committed by young men. Policing has improved greatly in recent decades, especially in big cities such as New York and London, with forces using computers to analyze the incidence of crime; in some parts of Manhattan this helped to reduce the robbery rate by over 95%. The epidemics of crack cocaine and heroin appear to have burnt out.
• The biggest factor may be simply that security measures have improved. Car immobilizers have killed joyriding; bullet proof screens, security guards, and marked money have all but done in bank robbery. Alarms, DNA databases, closed circuit television cameras, and security tags have increased the chance a burglar will be caught. Every survey of criminals shows, the main deterrent to crime is the fear of being caught.
• One in every hundred American adults is now in prison. If tough prison sentences were the cause, crime would not be falling in the Netherlands and Germany, which have reduced their prison populations. New York’s prison population has fallen by a quarter since 1999, yet its crime rate has dropped faster than that of many other cities.
• Harsh punishments, and in particular long mandatory sentences for certain crimes, look counterproductive. American prisons are full of old men (in CA more than 20% of inmates are over 50), many of whom are well past their criminal years, and non-violent drug users, who would be better off in treatment. To keep each California prisoner inside costs taxpayers $47,000 a year.
• Because prison stresses punishment rather than rehabilitation, most of what remains of the crime problem is really a recidivism issue. In England and Wales, for example, the number of first-time offenders has fallen by 44% since 2007. The number with more than 15 convictions has risen.
• Politicians seems to have grasped this. In America the number of new mandatory sentences enacted by Congress has fallen. Even in the Republican South, governors such as Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal have adopted policies favoring treatment over imprisonment for drug users.
• Better trained police officers could focus on new crimes. Traditional measures tend not include financial crimes such as credit-card fraud or tax evasion. Since these are seldom properly recorded, they have not contributed to the great fall in crime. As policing adapts to the technological age, it is as well to remember that criminals are doing so, too.
And The Atlantic Cities in a report titled “You’re More Likely to Die a Violent Death in Rural American Than in a City” details interesting findings from a large University of Pennsylvania study. Highlights:
• You’re about twice as likely to die in a car crash in rural America than in the most urban counties.
• Nationwide, the rate of “unintentional-injury death”—car crashes, drownings, falls, machinery accidents and the like—is about 15x the rate of homicide death. Add together all the ways in which you might die prematurely by intentional or unintentional injury (as opposed to illness), and your risk of death is actually about 22% higher in most rural counties in the America than in the most urban ones.
• Across the whole population, the top three causes of death were motor vehicle crashes, firearms, and poisoning. Motor vehicle crashes lead to 27.61 deaths per 100,000 people in the most rural counties and just 10.58 per 100,000 in the most urban.