June 5, 2011
Violent crime has fallen to its lowest level in 40 years. America is a safer place. According to The New York Times, “the odds of being murdered or robbed [in the United States] are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s.”
The FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report for 2010 is based on data collected from more than 13,000 law-enforcement agencies nationwide. The report found a significant 5.5 percent decline in violent crime.
The continued decline in crime seems to fly in the face of accepted theories of criminality. Many legal observers suggested that the recession and high unemployment would usher in higher crime rates — that did not happen. Some suggested that lowering the incarceration rate (in 2010 the number of people in prison fell for the first time in 38 years) would impact crime — it did not. Some said that police lay-offs and law enforcement cut backs would increase crime rates — it has not.
There is one constant, the fear of crime and the lengths that citizens will go to avoid being victimized. According to Gallup, nearly 4 in 10 Americans say they are afraid to walk alone at night within a mile of their home.
The number of Americans afraid to venture out alone at night is lower today than when crime rates were soaring in the 1990s. However, fear has not decreased as sharply as the drop in violent crime. In fact, while violent crime is at a record low, the percentage afraid to walk alone at night has crept up; suggesting the fear of crime is not always dictated by reality.
Ironically, the unrealistic fear of crime has had an enormous impact on crime. Experts may not say it and the average American may not admit it, but decreasing crime rates have come at a precious cost — the sacrifice of personal liberty. John Q. Wilson, a renowned criminologist at Boston College recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Another possible reason for reduced crime is that potential victims may have become better at protecting themselves by equipping their homes with burglar alarms, putting extra locks on their cars and moving into safer buildings or even safer neighborhoods.”
Homes and businesses across the country have taken measures to become more secure. What was once considered extreme is now common place — security systems, spot lights, motion detectors, metal gates over front doors, video surveillance, car alarms, mace, pepper spray, stun guns, hand guns, personal self-defense training, even architectural design with crime prevention in mind.
Driving around rather than through some neighborhoods, avoiding a dimly lit parking lot or spacious parking garage may be accepted as prudent. But it has nonetheless altered the freedom to live and travel as one chooses. A stroll through the park, window shopping or a trip to the ball park involve not only the thought of being entertained but also being safe. Subconsciously most Americans use a mental “safety” check list everyday to keep themselves out of harm’s way.
Most citizens are not even aware that some fundamental constitutional rights have begun to erode in the name of crime fighting. The Supreme Court of the United States has chiseled away at the Sixth Amendment guarantee of “effective” counsel. The High Court recently ruled that a suspect’s request for an attorney does not go on indefinitely and that a police officer does not need to use specific language to inform a suspect of his Miranda rights. In 2009, the court restricted the use of the exclusionary rule as a remedy for state conduct violating the Fourth Amendment. Last month, it narrowed the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures — making it easier for police to barge into a home without a warrant.
Americans have slowly reinvented their way of life to protect themselves from the threat of violence and that evolution may be driving down crime rates in the process. More research is warranted, but it appears that the key to falling crime rates is not so much a matter of what we do, but rather what we don’t do.
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