Why is crime falling during a recession? 5 theories

Violent crime dropped by over 5 percent in 2009, says the F.B.I, even though far more people were out of work. What gives?

Police departments can experiment with new ways of policing crime thanks to funds from the 2009 stimulus package.
(Image credit: Corbis)

Not only did violent crime fall for the third year in a row last year, according to new F.B.I. statistics — dropping 5.3 percent from 2008 figures — crime fell across the board, including a remarkable 17.1 percent plummet in motor vehicle thefts. But experts are puzzled by the fact that this trend coincides with a surge in the national poverty rate. After all, says Liz Goodwin at Yahoo News, don't "desperate times give rise to desperate measures"? (Watch an al Jazeera report about falling crime rates.) Here, some of the reasons why experts think a rise in joblessness hasn't provoked a rise in criminal activity:

1. A better-funded, more innovative police force

Large urban areas such as New York and Los Angeles have successfully experimented with new ways of policing crime in recent years, says Ashby Jones at The Wall Street Journal, leading to improved tactics nationwide. That and the $4 billion dedicated to law enforcement in the 2009 stimulus package mean the police are better-funded and smarter than ever before. However, as the recession drags on, state police budgets may be slashed.

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2. It's not would-be criminals losing their jobs

The bulk of violent and serious crimes are committed by young, uneducated men, says University of Colorado sociology professor Tim Wadsworth, quoted in Yahoo News. But this spike in unemployment is mainly affecting another demographic. "Forty-year-old non-offenders who get laid off are unlikely to start robbing 7-11s," he says.

3. Government hand-outs

Even though some conservative lawmakers believe welfare programs promote laziness, they may also be a factor in the relatively low crime rate. "Government safety nets" like the extension in unemployment benefits and a boom in food stamp programs help to "keep despair down and crime rates low," says Patrik Jonsson at The Christian Science Monitor.

4. No demand for black market goods

The low inflation rate means that consumer goods such as electronics have stayed at comparatively affordable prices. This means a thriving "black market in stolen goods" has failed to materialize, says criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, quoted in The Christian Science Monitor. What's the point in stealing things if you can't sell them on?

5. The drug market has changed

The drug trade, which normally accounts for a high proportion of arrests and violent crimes, has changed in recent years, according to sociology professor Richard Gendron, quoted in The Washington Times. Crack cocaine use has declined, while drug dealers have reportedly consolidated markets, "leading to less violence as a result of 'turf' disputes."

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