Associated Press and Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Crime in the United States dropped dramatically in 2009, bucking a historical trend that links rising crime rates to economic woes. Property crimes and violent offenses each declined about 5 percent, the FBI said Monday, citing reports from law enforcement coast to coast.
Last year’s decline was 5.5 percent for violent crime, including 7.2 percent for murders. The rate for property crime was down 4.9 percent, the seventh consecutive drop for that category. The declines had been a more modest 1.9 percent for violent crime and 0.8 percent for property crime in 2008 and 0.7 percent and 1.4 percent respectively the previous year.
The federal analysis shows that all four regions of the country showed a decline, with the South leading the way with a 6.6 percent drop, followed by 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.
Among cities, those with a population of half a million to 1 million had the largest decrease in violent crime: 7.5 percent. Nonmetropolitan counties had a 3 percent decrease, the lowest in the county category.
It was the third straight year of declines, and this year’s drops were even steeper than those of 2007 and 2008, despite the recession.
There were words of caution from experts.
“It’s fabulous news, but I would draw an analogy to global warming: Even if you believe the long-term trend is increasing temperatures, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a cold year,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.
Long term, said Northeastern University criminology professor James Alan Fox, “there is a connection between an economic downturn and crime: Budget cuts create significant challenges in keeping crime rates low. We have increasing numbers of at-risk youth in the population … We need to reinvest in crime prevention or else the good news we see today could evaporate.”
Experts offered a range of factors that might have contributed to the drop in reported crimes.
In the past, increases during economic downturns have tended to correspond to street level drug activity. One example is the crack cocaine epidemic during the economic decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
Currently, “we’re not seeing — at least as yet — comparable increases in drug market activity,” said Rosenfeld.
Factors “that often contribute to violence don’t seem to be there,” said Professor Alfred Blumstein of the Carnegie Mellon Heinz School, whose research over the past 20 years has covered many aspects of the criminal justice system.
Blumstein said of 22 of the largest cities, homicides were down in 18 and up in four. The consistency continued into the category of robbery, which went down in 20 of the biggest cities and up in two.
The Transportation Department said 84 percent of motorists wore their seat belts in 2009, an all-time high. Eighty-three percent were buckled up in 2008. But while Washington state boasts a high rate of seat belt users, useage dropped just a shade:
2008: 96.5 percent used seat belts
2009: 96.4 percent
Department of Transportation