Explaining the Crime Drop

Explaining the Crime Drop - Explaining the American and...

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Unformatted text preview: Explaining the American and Canadian crime “drop” In the 1990’s“) Marc Ouimet Ecole de crirninologie Université de Montreal Apres avoir connu des clécennies d'augmentations inint‘errompues de leur criminalité. le Canada et les Eiatstnis connaissent des baisses intportanies depuis 1993. Plusieurs explications ont récemment jaii surface aux Etatstnis sur les facteurs pouuant expliquer un tel changement de tenclance. clont une augmentation dans le nombre de policiers. l‘application par les forces ate l‘ordre de methodes plus répressiues et l'augmentation importante do. taux d'incarcération. Notre analyse des difliérences ole la criminalité de 1993 a 1999 pour six types cl‘infraci'ions clans cinq regions canadiennes et aux EIat-s-Unis indique que des baisses de la criminalité sont' observables at: Canada sans que (les changements notables en termes de repression policiére on d'incarcération soient notables. Ainsi. les explications démographiques. économiques ei culturelles semblent plus aptes a rendre compte des baisses de la criminalite'. After decades of continuously increasing crime rates. Canada and the United States have now experienced iheirfirst prolonged period of decline in crime rates. Criminologists are just starting to look at the reasons that may explain such a reversal. In the U.S.. many factors have been invoked to explain the trend. including increases in the number of police qflicers. more aggressive policing. and an increased use of incarceration. Although Canada‘s crime trends are similar to those found in the US. there has been little or no change in policing practices or incarceration trends. This paper suggests that the causes qflhe decline in crime rates lie elsewhere. namely. in demographic shifts. improved employment opportunities. and changes in collective values. Crime in Canada, as recorded by official statistics. increased annually during the 1960‘s and 1970‘s. This led to scepticism among many scholars regarding the validity of the crime figures. According to Hagan [1991]. the growth in crime during that period can be explained partly by better recording practices and by a l ‘ Canadian Journal of Criminology 33 to 50 1 Revue canadicnnc dc criminologic January/janvier 2002 34 Canadian Journal of C riminology Januar]; 2002 greater police enforcement of minor statutes. Despite distortions caused by these changes, Hagan concludes that there has been a real increase during that period in crime and violence. as well as in rates of alcohol and drug abuse. In the 1980‘s. official statistics for some types of offences show periods of stability and even slight decline. but trends for violence continued to grow sharply. The 1990's show a strikingly different picture. Since 1992. most categories of crimes have declined significantly in Canada. In The Crime Drop in America (Blumstein and Wallman 2000]. experts examine the unprecedented fall of crime in the USA throughout the 1990's which can be observed both in official crime statistics and the national crime survey (Rennison 2000]. It is interesting to note that no one had foreseen the amplitude of the crime drop before it happened. Our collective inability to foresee future crime trends. even with the use of sophisticated time—series analytical models. demonstrates that criminological macro‘theories have yet to be developed. The reality of the decline of crime has only been acknowledged in recent years and is now attracting research. Chaiken (2000:1) concludes. after reviewing a Statistics Canada publication. that ‘the longer pattern in Canada is essentially flat'. This is troublesome because all data indicate that a drop in crime also occurred in Canada. Although Chaiken (2000] does not acknowledge that fact. drops in crime during the 90's have also been observed elsewhere. In Germany. the total offence rate dropped by 7.8% between 1993 and 1999 {PKS Berichtsjahr 2001). In England. the total number of crimes recorded by the British Crime Survey dropped by 15.6% between 1993 and 1999 [Povey 2001). In this paper. long term crime trends in Canada and the United States are examined in order to establish the concordance between the two countries. Then. a detailed analysis of the evolution of crime between 1993 and 1999 is presented. Finally. factors that may help explain recent trends are examined. Our two nations Canada is the country that most resembles the U.S. First. more than 90% of the 30 million Canadians live within 100 miles from the U.S. border. Second. our history of colonisation is Decline in crime rates — Canada and US. 35 generally comparable. although Canada has retained a more continental influence than the U.S. (Lipset 1990). Third. both countries have historically been lands of immigration from around the world. Perhaps more important today is the fact that our popular cultural world is mostly undifferentiated. whether in movies. sports or television [Quebec being the exception]. With the trend towards globalization and particularly the NAFTA agreement. exchanges between our countries have increased rapidly in the last decade. Canada is by far the largest trading partner of the U.S. [and vice versa] in both imports and exports. with a total trade figure of $434 billion in 1999 as compared to $284b with Japan. $25113 with the U.K. and $238b for Mexico.‘2' Our commercial exchanges amount to more than one billion U.S. dollars a day. There are. however, major differences between Canada and the United States. Canada is a more egalitarian society. This is most visible in easy access to education and in universal access to health care services. There are also less visible differences. such as differences in personal values. According to Lipset [1990]. Canadians are more tolerant toward others and more open to different races. religions or sexual orientations. in terms of crime incidence. there are similarities and differences between Canada and the United States. Mayhew and van Dijk (1997). who conducted an international crime victimization survey. found that in 1995 the overall national victimization risk was 24.2% for Americans and 25.2% for Canadians. The prevalence of most types of crimes is comparable even for crimes such as robbery [1.3% for Americans vs. 1.2% for Canadians). Two factors stand out in an analysis of the crime problem: the greater lethality of interpersonal conflicts in the U.S. because of easy access to firearms. and the disproportionate crime problem in large U.S. cities [Ouimet 1999]. in terms of crime control. Canada and the U.S. are very different. In the U.S.. there are more police officers per capita. courts are more likely to sentence offenders to jail or prison. average terms of imprisonment are longer in the U.S. and possibilities for parole are more likely in Canada. All these factors. in association with high rates of violence. contribute to the fact that the incarceration rate in the U.S. is more than four times greater than in Canada. 36 Revue canadierine dc criminologie Jonvicr 2002 In order to compare the genera] evolution of crime trends in both countries. long-term trends in the homicide rate were examined. This offence was chosen because data are available for long term periods. it is an accurately measured variable. it shows few differences in definitions over time or space and is correlated with the incidence of less serious forms of crime. Figure 1 displays the Canadian and American homicide rate from 1901 to 1999"“ Figure 1 Trends in homicide rate per 100,000 for Canada and the United States from 1901 to 1999 Rate per 100,000 USA (a 1: w i: [H U o a q a O ‘_ c m a 2 m 1 —Canada —United states Although the homicide rate is three to four times higher in the 11.8. than in Canada. trends are comparable. Figure 1 shows that in both countries. homicide rates increased in the three first decades of the century. culminating in the early thirties. a period of economic depression. Rates dropped considerably from the. mid-thirties to the fifties, despite a small post-warjump. In both countries. the homicide rate increased dramatically between the early sixties and the late seventies before reaching a plateau in the early nineties. after which it decreased again. Homicide rates for both countries in 1999 are comparable to rates during the mid-sixties. The concordance in the general trends of both countries‘ homicide rates is remarkable. As one can imagine. the ratio between both curves is flat from 1962 to 1999 [it Decline in crime rates a Canada and U.S. 37 averages 3.6)!“ Such a result also rejects the hypothesis of a convergence between the U.S. and Canada that was proposed by Lenton [1989) and correctly rejected by Hagan [1991). The long- term parallelism between homicide trends in both countries can be interpreted as an indication that the forces behind these trends are very general and diffused across North America. Explanations for the U.S. drop in crime Many factors may have contributed to the last decade's decline in crime rates. In a recent book, editors Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman [2000] asked contributors to discuss the changes in specific areas that might have played a role in the downward trend of violence. In chapter two. Blumstein shows that the homicide peak of the early nineties is mostly attributable to an epidemic of young urban black handgun homicides. Yet. the homicide rate for whites, older people or non—urban people has also gone down in the 90’s. There are three major explanations for the drop in crime that are examined in the book: demographic trends. incarceration policies. and police practiCes. The demographic approach is to look at downward trends in crime as a consequence of the diminishing number of people in the crime~pr0ne age category. namely teenagers and young adults. Steffensmeier and Harer [1999) argue that changes in age composition made only a small contribution to the downward trend of crime in the years of the Clinton administration. There is scepticism about the demographic explanation because the impact of changes in the population structure on crime should. for many observers. have taken place earlier. The number of teenagers and young adults peaked around 1980 and dropped during the 80's. The explanation for the lag between the two phenomena may well be the presence of a cohort effect. The cohort effect would specify that people born during the early 60‘s showed higher levels of crime involvement than any cohort before or after. and were criminally active for longer periods than other cohorts [in large part explainable by difficulties of integrating the job market during the 80‘s}. Therefore. the impact of the diminishing number of youths has been delayed. and this explains the temporary lag between the two phenomena. The role of increases in the incarceration rate on the crime rate was carefully examined by Spelman {2000]. He estimates 38 Canadian Journal of Cn'minology January 2002 the relationship between incarceration and crime and comes up with an elasticity measure of -0.4, which means that an increase in incarceration of one percent. will be followed by a drop in crime of0.4%. or 4/ 1000. For Spelman. about one quarter of the drop in crime during the 90‘s can be explained by increases in incarceration. Not all scholars share the view that the use of incarceration is related to trends in the crime rate. An analysis provided by the Justice Policy Institute [2000] shows that the State of Texas increased its prison population throughout the 90‘s to reach an incarceration rate of 1.035 per 100,000 residents in 1999. second only to Louisiana. while its drop in crime for the 1995-1998 period was 5%, far behind the drop of 23% in California or 21% in New York. Our own calculations of the correlation between the 1993- 1998 percentage change in homicide rates and incarceration rates for 48 states [DC. Hawaii. and Alaska not included} stands at 0.085 and is not statistically different from zero (correlations for other index crimes are all positive but non-significant at a 0.05 level). In other words. trends in states‘ incarceration levels are not associated to trends in crime levels. As explained elsewhere (Ouimet and Tremblay 1996]. the error around the correlation between the 1993 murder rate and the incarceration rate [correlation of 0.768 in 1993] is strongly and positively related to the percent change in the incarceration level between 1993 and 1998. suggesting that American states are adjusting their incarceration levels to the states’ norm given their crime rate.'5' For example. the state of Delaware had an incarceration rate in 1993 of 394 [which was more than the rate of 226 which it should have had in light of its murder rate) "only" increased its in- carceration by 8.8% between 1993 and 1998. At the other extreme. West Virginia. with an incarceration level of 98 in 1993 [much lower than expected} has managed to almost double its incarceration rate to 192 in 1998. Ouimet and Tremblay [1996) offer a political model for explaining these variations in the incarceration rate. Another explanation for the drop in crime concerns policing. Eek and Maguire (2000) examined the possible impact of changes in policing on the drop in crime. but are generally quite critical of the claims that have been made by police officials about their role in the general downward trend in crime. The main problem Decline in crime rates — Canada and US. 39 with the policing explanation is that innovative police practices such as gun patrols (stop and frisk} or Compstat type systems had been implemented after the crime rate had already begun declining. Moreover. the rate of crime dropped even in cities that had not experienced major changes in policing. In sum. we know too little about the specific impact of different police strategies such as problem—oriented policing. community policing. or zero—tolerance policing to allow us to evaluate the causal relationship between policing and crime trends. Other explanations have been advanced to explain the drop in crime. While Rosenfeld {2000} acknowledges the impact of demographic and incarceration factors. he argues that other variables have to be considered to explain the downward trend in homicide. one of which might be the “civilizng process" described by Elias [1939]. Elias shows how people gradually become more sensitive to violence and are therefore gradually expressing greater intoleraHCe towards such behaviors. Holloway [1999] advances an explanation developed by Levitt and Donohue that can account for diminishing crime rates in most places in the U.S. during the 90's (whether policing practices have changed or not. whether state imprisonment rates changed much or a little. etc]. They argue that increases in abortion during the late 70's and 80's resulted in the reduction of the numbers of unwanted children that would have grown to become delinquents. What the authors do not tell us is that the number of single- parent families also increased during the late 70's and 80‘s. and this should have contributed to a growth in juvenile delinquents during the 90's. Another explanation was proposed by Felson (1998]. who concludes that the decline in the use of paper money bills has contributed to a general reduction in theft. robbery. and even homicide. it is not clear. however. why this trend would have had any impact on the rates of crimes such as car theft or burglary. The contributing authors in The Crime Drop in America focus on serious violence. namely homicide and robbery. Sexual assault and aggravated assault are not examined because it is believed that UCR statistics are not reliable for these behaviours. Little mention is made of the fact that very common crimes such as burglary and car theft are also declining. The result of this selection by the authors is to look for specific factors. rather 40 Revue canadienne de criminologie Janvier 2002 than those that may explain the many varieties of trends in crime. For example. if one concentrates on homicide. the question of guns becomes central. but guns play little role in explaining rates of burglary 0r car theft. Second. no effort is made to sort out comparatively the different possible causes of the decline. Examining the crime trends for Canadian regions and the U.S. The year 1991 can be considered as the peak in the upward trend for many types of crimes in both Canada and the US. In the eight years that followed, the volume of several types of crime decreased annually. To study the Canadian context, five regions were constructed out of ten province: Prince Edward Island. New Brunswick. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland were grouped into the “Atlantic region". while Alberta. Saskatchewan and Manitoba were grouped in the “Prairies region". This has been done to provide an easier analysis of the trends in crime and because penitentiary data are only available on the basis of those regions.“ To study crime. we selected a few we'llvdefined offences that are often used in trend analysis and represent the principal crimes that result in the incarceration of the offender. Canadian data were coded from Statistics Canada's CANSIM data sets. while American data were extracted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics website. In terms of definitions for homicide, robbery. burglary. and motor vehicle theft. the rates can be compared directly between both countries because the statutory definitions of these offences are fairly similar. The rates for sexual assault and assault should not be compared across countries since the American rape and aggravated assault concepts are more limited than in Canada [there is no way to isolate aggravated assault and aggravated sexual assault in Canadian statistics]. Table 1 presents the crime data for Canada and the United States in 1991 and 1999. Table 1 shows that there has been an important reduction in crime rates for most categories of crime in most regions of Canada. The drop varies from 23% [assault and robbery} to 43% for homicide. The homicide rate has declined in all regions: the reduction ranges from 35% to 58%. With the exception of motor vehicle theft. the frequency of all crimes decreased in all regions Decline in crime rates — Canada and [1.5. 41 Table 1 Rate per 100,000 population for selected offences for Canadian reglons and the USA in 1981 and 1999 British Quebec Ontario Prairie: Columbia Camdn -- 154 9.77 assault 42 r. IIE III I 6‘ Mm: temple theft 201 697 315] 524 1'59 51-? Population 2330 .500 68457130 9914 290 4609 500 32!?! 500 265-)”3700 252 932796 ------- Sexual assault 47 72 107 97 77 33 Motor wflflcle [heft 223 587 4 73] 421 39 643 Pnpulatiun 2 358 374 I] 4] |547 5 07‘8 1?? 4 009 922 30 201 303 272 691000 Difference assault 44% 48% *3 "‘4: 30% 37% 31% {43% l Molar VEhlLk‘ lht‘fi 23% - 4% . ' i‘opulatlnn 10% 25% 12% :- 5% 1% 2% 42 Canadian Journal of Criminology January 2002 except robbery in the Prairies [no change). The only crime without a declining rate is motor vehicle theft. which nevertheless declines on a per 100.000 registered motor vehicles basis. Table 1 also reports crime figures for the U.S. for the years 1991 and 1999. It is difficult to determine in which country crime has decreased the most. In fact. our interpretation of the data is that crime has decreased at the same rate in both countries. The data show that the drop in crime occurred in Canada as well as in the United States. and that the trends are comparable for most types of crime. This would indicate that the causes of the decline cannot be found in very specific factors that may have played a role in some jurisdictions. In this sense. searching for causes of the decline in specific forms of crime — such as the drop in youth firearm-related homicides — is misleading. Explaining the decline of crime rates in Canada A number of factors may have played a role in the explanation of the recent trend in crime in Canada. We grouped them in two ...
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