During the 1990s the United States experienced a significant drop in
the incidence of most categories of crime. The assault rate in America
dropped by more than one-third, burglary rates more than halved, robberies
fell by two-thirds and car theft fell by three-quarters.
In Australia, by contrast, burglary and car theft fell only marginally
during the 1990s while assault and robbery rates went up. Indeed, the International
Crime Victim Survey of 17 countries shows Australians are more at risk
than the citizens of most other developed countries. Australia ranks
second highest overall (behind England and Wales) on the rate of
victimisation, and we score higher than any other country on so-called
'contact crimes' such as robbery and assault.
It would be useful to know how the US managed to reduce criminality
during the 1990s.
Explaining crime rate variations
Many different factors have been identified as possible causes for the
dramatic fall in the American crime rate. These include the strong
economy, the ebbing of the crack-cocaine epidemic and the reduction in the
number of young males in the population as the 1960s birth-bulge matured.
Some of these explanations are more convincing than others. It is
difficult to see why the strong economy should have reduced crime, for
example, when crime increased during other periods of rising prosperity in
America (most notably the 1960s). Furthermore, Australia's economy grew
even more strongly than America's during the past decade, but crime rates
here did not fall.
What we are looking for, then, is something distinctive about America
in the 1990s. Two policy changes in particular are worth investigating.
One was the move in New York City and a number of other major centres
to what has been called 'Broken Windows' policing. This strategy called
for increased police surveillance of behaviour in public places in order
to lower the level of official tolerance of relatively minor infractions
such as vandalism, vagrancy and graffiti. The theory of Broken Windows
held that serious crimes thrive in areas where nobody seems to care about
the little things. Thus, by taking action on the small incivilities, the
bigger and more serious anti-social behaviours should decline as well.
Economic rationality and criminal behaviour
The other major policy change that occurred in America in the period
under review was that more offenders ended up in prison. This policy, too,
was driven by an academic theoretical literature, although in this case
the theory was more economic than sociological.
In the 1960s, the Chicago economist Gary Becker suggested that crime,
like any other 'business', involves a rational calculation by individuals
of likely costs, benefits and risks flowing from a given course of action:
"When other variables are held constant, an increase in a
person's probability of conviction or punishment if convicted would
generally decrease, perhaps substantially, perhaps negligibly, the number
of offenses he commits ... a person commits an offense if the expected
utility to him exceeds the utility he could get by using his time and
other resources at other activities."
Becker reasoned that we can reduce the rate of criminal behaviour by
changing this calculus. This can be done by raising the likelihood that
offenders will be caught (which means spending more resources on policing)
and/or by increasing the severity of the punishment (for example, by
spending more resources on imprisoning offenders who are caught and
convicted). Becker suggested that the former strategy is generally more
cost-effective than the latter, although the relative effectiveness of
detection and punishment rates in deterring crime depends on the extent to
which potential criminals are risk-averse (risk-avoiders will be deterred
more by the prospect of getting caught, while risk-lovers will be deterred
more by the prospect of severe punishment).
The economic theory of crime that has developed out of Becker's
original paper recognises that different individuals break the law for
different reasons, that not all law-breakers are rational utility
maximisers, and that different offenders will weigh risks and benefits in
different ways. Nevertheless, it claims that, at the margin, more
individuals will be deterred from engaging in criminal behaviour if the
chances of being apprehended and/or the severity of punishment are
increased: 'We can reduce crime in our community by increasing the
probabilities of capture and conviction and the severity of the
This is an edited version of an article that
appeared in the Centre for Independent Studies Policy
Magazine, Summer 2002-03. The full text can be found here.
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