Fri, Aug 26, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Is US crime falling, or are all the criminals in jail?

Sociologists have many explanations for the plunging rate of serious crime, including legal abortion, less crack addiction and, most contentiously, longer sentences

By Chris McGreal  /  The Guardian, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Mountain People

On one of the lifeless, uniform streets of the US capital, a bulky former crack cocaine dealer who goes by the nom de guerre of Tiny laments the passing of the old Washington.

“Back then they called it the murder capital of the world. These few blocks here were the murder capital of the murder capital of the world, and right here’s where I did my business. Made a lot of money, too,” he said, hovering on a corner in the mostly black Trinidad neighborhood a few blocks north of that largely white citadel, the Capitol.

“Even sold it down by the White House,” he said. “Could do anything back then. We owned this city. Now it’s like everywhere else. One giant coffee shop.”

Tiny long ago moved on to the more legal, if less lucrative — and certainly less adrenaline-pumping — enterprise of parcel delivery, which is why he is reluctant to give a name other than the one he used to be known by on the streets.

Two decades ago, Washington had the highest murder rate in the US. Now the drive-by shootings that claim the lives of innocent teenagers are infrequent enough to shock, and make the newspapers.

Criminologists and sociologists have spent years grappling to explain the dramatic slide in violent and other serious crime in the US capital, but it is not unique to Washington.

The latest FBI figures show that murder, rape, robberies and other serious crimes have fallen to a 48-year low across the country.

In Washington last year, 131 people were murdered, the lowest number in half a century. Two decades ago, there were 482 homicides in the city amid turf wars among drug gangs and crack-driven violent robberies.

It is a pattern replicated across the country. In 2009, New York City had the lowest number of murders since detailed FBI records began in 1963. There was a small increase last year, but even so the total of 536 homicide victims was still well below the 2,245 murdered in 1990 when Times Square was infamous for peep shows and drug pushers, not the Disney Store.

Twenty years ago, the murder rate for the whole US was 9.8 per 100,000 people. It has fallen by nearly half, although it is still twice the rate in France.

It is not just murder. Robberies were down nearly 10 percent last year and 8 percent the year before.

There is a score of explanations offered by sociologists for collapsing crime figures, from theories that it is tied to legalization of abortion or the reduction of lead in fuel to the closing of mental institutions.

One theory is it that better medical treatment has reduced the number of murders by saving the lives of assault victims who would otherwise have died. However, that does not explain why overall violent crime is also down.

Anti-gun activists note that the cities with two of the sharpest falls in murder rates, New York and Washington, have enacted strict gun control laws by US standards. Yet Houston, where some regard it as criminal not to own a gun, has also seen a sharp drop in homicides.

One of the most widely accepted explanations is also one of the most politically and socially sensitive: that the imposition of sharply stiffer prison sentences since the early 1980s, which has resulted in the US having the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world, has kept large numbers of criminals off the streets.

The US imprisons 2.3 million of its citizens, a number that has risen dramatically since the 1980s when state legislatures began greatly increasing sentences out of fear of the surging crime rate.

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