April 14, 2009

No Direct Link Between Crime, Economy, Experts Contend

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Will the economic recession bring an increase in crime rates?
The Becker model, developed by Gary Becker of the University of Chicago in 1968, states that an individual would commit a crime if the benefits of commiting the crime outweigh the costs of commiting the crime. Applied to the current economic environment, this model suggests that income-generating crimes like theft and burglaries will become more attractive because an increasing number of people are becoming unemployed, according to Prof. Emily Owens, PAM.
Despite the models predictions, however, experts say the recession’s direct effects on crime rates is indeterminate.
“There is no evidence whatsoever that recession[s] are associated with increases in violent crime,” Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics and economics professor at the University of Chicago, stated in an e-mail.
Kathy Zoner, the Police Chief of the Cornell University Police Department, has not observed any correlations between crime rates and the economic decline so far. Many believe that Ithaca’s position as an economic bubble because of consistent economic support from Cornell students and faculty will shield the city from the possible crime surge, at least to some extent.
“I believe that Ithaca would likely be in a better position to resist any significant increases in crime due to the greater opportunities there economically and the better educated citizens,” Ronald Huff, criminology professor at U.C. Irvine, stated in an e-mail.
“Smaller communities with correspondingly more collective efficacy and support within them may do better,” added Henry Pontell, criminology professor at U.C Irvine.
However, crime rates are already rising in parts of the world. Rates of robberies, larcenies and aggravated assaults increased by two percent so far this year in Richmond, Va. according to the Richmond Times Dispatch; 16 bank robberies were recorded in February alone in the Los Angeles county according to TMCnet; and shoplifting in Scotland shot up by 13 percent in the past six months, according to Daily Record U.K.
“[I] Absolutely [think there is a positive correlation between unemployment and crime rates], although studies are mixed in findings,” Pontell said.
“[The relationship] is ambiguous at the aggregate level, but stronger when you [take apart] the data and look closely at unemployment among poor young males,” Huff said.
According to Pontell, although unemployment itself is a central contributing factor for increases in crime among poor young males, many other factors, such as socioeconomic inequality, also come into play. Those in lower social strata have smaller “safety nets” such as personal savings and family resources, and are therefore more likely to resort to crime.
“[More] lower jobs are often eliminated [in a recession]. People who cannot secure jobs often [turn] to illegitimate opportunities,” Huff said.
One the other hand, there is a well established correlation between crime rates and alcohol consumption, and according to Owens — alcohol consumption decreases in recessions due to tightening personal budgets and crime rates tend to decrease as well. Some say property crime falls during downturns too because people stay at home when they should be at work. There is also evidence that people who are at home and unemployed are more likely to call police tip lines, Owens said. The unemployment rate rose 3.4 percent in the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“For property crime[s] like burglary and auto theft, my best estimate is that when the unemployment rate goes up one point, for instance from 8 percent to nine percent, then property crime goes up one to 2 percent. So even in a relatively bad recession, we would barely notice an impact of the economy on crime,” Levitt added.
In addition, in current economic conditions, fewer people walk on the streets, toting shopping bags and using ATM machines — all of which would decrease the number of potential targets for robbers, according to The New York Times.
Although the effects of tightening wallets on crime rates is debatable, side-effects of the recession, such as budget cuts in the law enforcement sector, could cause serious problems.
Levitt referred to his 2004 paper on the decrease in crime in the 1990s where he claimed that crime rates decreased due to a combination of increases in the number of policemen and the prison population, the waning crack-cocaine epidemic and the legalization of abortion in the 70s; therefore, the current recession could increase crime rates because budget cuts could create vacancies in the police force as well as decrease the capacity of inmates.
Currently, there are three vacant spots in the Cornell University Police Department due to budget cuts, according to Zoner. Training new policemen takes time, and these spots will likely remain vacant for at least a few months.
Police forces across the nation are facing the effects of similar downsizes: 200 policemen are facing layoffs in Boston for the first time since 1982, Winthrop, Mass. laid off its police chief and Atlanta police are taking days off without pay every two weeks, according to the Scientific American. Due to budget issues, Washington D.C. is allowing as many as 80 percent of the city’s inmates to qualify for early release, according to the Washington Times.
“To the extent that city government cut back on their police force, this will almost certainly increase crime rates — a 10 percent increase in the number of police on the street will reduce the violent crime rate by 9 percent,” Owens said.
Some relief will be provided by a $4 billion stimulus package earmarked for law enforcement, according to USA Today.
Increases in drug use and gang activity are also reliable catalysts for increased crime rates, according to Huff. Although the largest two crime surges in the past 50 years happened during inconsistent economic climates — one during the boom of the late 60s and another during the economic breakdown of the late 80s — each was plagued by a major drug epidemic: heroin and crack cocaine, according to Scientific American.
Abandoned foreclosed homes in cities like Santa Ana, Calif. are becoming rendezvous centers for gangs where prostitution and illegal drug use are festering, reported The New York Times.
In the past few months firearm sales have increased due to anticipated tighter gun control by the Obama administration. According to ABC News, Broome County in New York already issued 107 firearm permits for the first three months of this year; in 2008, only 237 permits total were issued.
“If having more guns made us safer, then the U.S. would be [one of] the safest places on earth. According to all official data, quite the opposite is true,” Pontell said. “It’s when firearms fall in the wrong hands which creates the problems we typically see,” he added.
Jiverly Wong, the shooter at Binghamton two weeks ago, was struggling to make ends meet with $200 per week from welfare checks after his layoff in November. Although the Bing­hamton Police Department maintains that the recent mass shooting is purely accidental, some experts still expressed concern and stressed the importance of community support.
“I think that a recession can only lead to more desperate circumstances for some people,” Pontell said. “It’s more incumbant on society and communities to recognize the increased risk and provide buffers to help prevent such [acts]. Community awareness is a good start.”