A longer view on the rise and fall of crime

By James Alan Fox, 4/4/2000

The latest news from the Boston crime front came as quite a shock: five murders over 72 hours, all apparently unconnected events.

Capped by this flurry of gun violence, the city closed out the first quarter of 2000 with 11 homicides, placing very much in doubt the chance of improving upon last year's tally of 31 killings.

The recent shooting deaths left many local officials and crime experts scratching their heads. What does it all mean?

Is it just a blip, as Police Commissioner Paul F. Evans speculated? Or are we in for another wave of bloodshed like that of a decade ago, when the annual death toll peaked at 152?

Similar questions are being raised in other cities across the country. In New York, after its 1990s renaissance, when murders plummeted by 70 percent, police brass were forced to explain a 6 percent rise in killing for 1999 over 1998. St. Louis reported a 15 percent increase in homicides for 1999 following years of falling murder rates. Washington, D.C., and Dallas both suffered alarming spikes in their murder counts over the first few months of 2000. What a difference a decade makes.

It is critical that these crime statistics be understood in long-term perspective, however. In Norfolk, Va., for example, the police were called to task by city leaders for a sudden 41 percent surge in murders in 1999 over 1998. Yet 1999 had actually been the second-best figure in more than a decade, exceeded only by the 1998 low of 32 violent deaths.

No, the sky is not falling. In light of inevitable short-term fluctuations, it is important that we not overreact to a sudden rebound in crime rates. We should resist the temptation to point an accusatorial finger or to stop doing what has worked. In the stock market, savvy investors learn to wait out short-term shifts. In the crime arena, we should keep our investments in prevention and not rush to increase punishments.

Without overreacting, it is equally important that we recognize the early signs that the new millennium has brought an end to the great 1990s crime-drop party - a decadelong rally in which crime rates dove to 30-year lows virtually everywhere.

It was inevitable that at some point this low point would have been reached. Now is the time to get back to work - not with the unlikely goal of reducing crime further, but of not allowing it to increase very much.

Regrettably, complacency seems to have settled in across America, replacing the sense of urgency that characterized the early 1990s. Sure, lawfulness and order, rather than lawlessness and disorder, have become the norm. Yet we may have become too comfortable that crime trends were moving in the right direction and have diverted our attention elsewhere.

Crime rates, however, are rather resilient. Without sustained effort, they can and will rebound. And there is reason for concern. Even with the decline since 1993, youth crime levels in the United States remain high. The rate of killing by teens, for example, may be down 50 percent from its 1993 peak, but it is up 50 percent from its 1985 trough. The glass is half empty, not half full. We may have won a battle or two, but the war is far from over.

In addition, we have a new crop of teenagers every few years, each looking to express their desire for excitement and rebellion. The next group entering the high-risk ages will be much larger. While we may have been successful in sending a strong antiviolence message to today's youth, they will not necessarily pass it on.

Looking long-term, there is actually good news ahead. Overshadowing the expanding population of teens and young adults, the fastest-growing segment of the population is the seniors, whose involvement with violent crime ranks lowest across age groups.

Yet when is it ever the case that all else remains equal? We shouldn't bet on lower homicide rates. Instead, we should prepare now for the violent crime storm about which crime prognosticators have warned and keep the crime-drop party hats handy to celebrate when we successfully avert it.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 4/4/2000.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.