Friday, December 30, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Falling crime rates and the fortification of America

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
December 30, 2011

The day after Christmas, Charles Lane’s column in The Washington Post touted America's dramatic decline in crime. He gleefully suggested that, "With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957."

Like most observers of the criminal justice system, Lane is puzzled by the sharp decline in crime. Lane also suggested declining crime rates have a social and psychological benefit. He writes that “only” 38 percent of Americans say they fear walking alone at night within a mile of their homes.

The survey Lane cites seems to contradict his premise. Gallup also found, despite the decline in violent crime since the mid-1990s, "the majority of Americans continue to believe the nation's crime problem is getting worse." Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed say there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago.

How can there be less fear of crime if more than two-thirds of Americans believe crime is on the rise? Although the number of people who fear walking the street is lower than it was 30 years ago, it is up eight percentage points from 2001. More importantly, fear of crime has had a healthy impact on crime rates. This phenomenon is often overlooked when analyzing declining crime.

The fear of crime, realistic or not, has played a significant role in reducing 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. James 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.

 Lane calls falling crime rates the most important social trend of the last 20 years. The most important question may be why does crime continue to fall? Many experts extol the virtues of incarceration, demographics, entitlement programs, concealed carry, a decline in demand for crack cocaine, even an increase in abortions.

Criminologists, sociologists and economists can no longer ignore the “fortification of America” as a leading factor in declining crime rates.

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