Friday, June 15, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: The economy’s impact on crime has yet to play out

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
June 15, 2012

Many experts predicted that a sour economy would usher in an increase in crime. Yet the recession did not result in out-of-work, law abiding citizens desperately resorting to crime to make ends meet. Crime continued to fall.

However, the economy’s impact on crime has not yet played itself out. State and local governments are still in decline -- government budgets have been adjusted with policing, corrections and the courts taking a hit.

The effect of the economic downturn on law enforcement agencies may be felt for years to come, or worse, permanently. The permanence of this change will be driven not just by the economy, but by the realization that it is no longer feasible for local government officials to allocate a significant portion of the general fund budgets for public safety.

More than 50 percent of police departments nationwide have reported personnel layoffs. Communities across the country are beginning to feel it. No more so than in New Jersey.

Police layoffs in Newark, which took effect December 1, 2010, seemed to have had an immediate effect on arrests. Between January and June of 2011, police recorded nearly 4,000 fewer arrests than they did during the same period in 2010. 

The Economic Policy Institute reported there is more to cost-cutting than meets the eye. Cuts to the police force of five high-crime cities in New Jersey, including Newark, actually cost 12.9 times more than the budgetary savings of eliminating the officers, when the cost of rising crime was factored into the equation. Public safety cuts are not only dangerous, they’re bad business.

The reality of fewer policing resources has caused police departments to re-evaluate priorities. Although, cash strapped departments have pledged that emergency response will not be diminished -- there will inevitably be a change in the way police departments handle non-emergencies. The response time, if there is a response, for crimes like burglary, theft and vandalism -- quality of life crimes -- will be impacted. 

That might not seem like a big deal, but New York City, the shining example of crime control, began their crusade against crime in the early 1990s by following James Q. Wilson’s Broken Windows theory. Wilson suggested vigorously cracking down on nuisance crimes and violent crime rates will drop. In 1990 there were 2,245 murders in NYC -- in 2011 there were 515.

The new economic reality may limit resource-driven crime control efforts like NYC’s, and that portends disaster. Professor James Alan Fox recently sounded the alarm. From July through December 2011 several crime categories showed an increase, including a 1.9 percent increase in murder.

Fox wrote in the Boston Globe, "Whatever the final data show, it would seem that the long-term downturn in crime has slowed, and may even have bottomed out … If we fail to invest sufficiently in crime prevention and crime control -- both personnel and programs, we may someday look back at 2011 and consider them the 'good old days.' "

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