The Drivers of Rising Crime

In a thoughtful OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, John Jay College Professor Barry Latzer discusses some of the factors that are influencing the increase in crime across America.  Latzer notes that the last major crime wave which began in the late 1960s “was driven largely by three factors: large-scale rural-to-urban migration of African-Americans and immigration to big cities of Hispanic populations with high violent-crime rates, massive growth in the youth population, and a weak criminal-justice system. One might throw in a fourth: The crack-cocaine epidemic, which sent crime soaring after it began to ease in the early ’80s. These elements aren’t present today, though attempts to weaken the criminal-justice system are worrisome.”  This time around he cites “the pandemic, along with dubious criminal-justice system reforms, undoubtedly made things worse. Covid made police reluctant to interact with suspects except when making arrests for serious crimes. Wholesale releases from jails like New York’s Rikers Island put offenders back on the streets. Some states adopted bail reforms that kept offenders from jail entirely. It didn’t help that a new crop of progressive prosecutors, in misguided efforts to reduce so-called mass incarceration, declined to prosecute numerous misdemeanors and agreed to light sentences even for some violent felons.

From a demographic standpoint he reports on “a little-noticed migration trend may reduce crime in the next decade: a significant movement of African-Americans out of big cities. If this trend continues, it could portend reductions in crime. Low-income blacks, especially young males, commit a disproportionate amount of the violent crime in this country. That’s why their migration in the ’60s raised crime rates in cities. A recent analysis of census data by Politico found that from 2010 to 2020 nine of the 10 cities with the highest proportions of blacks (Houston was the exception) were losing minority population. Some declines were dramatic: Detroit lost more than 277,000 of its African-American residents, Chicago more than 261,000 and New York in excess of 176,000. Unless immigration and migration patterns change in coming decades, this factor is unlikely to support a new crime tsunami.

A second consideration is age distribution. The American population is aging, and the once-violent baby boomers have mellowed considerably. In 2021 more than 21% of Americans were baby boomers and the 65-plus age group is projected to constitute more than a fifth of the population through 2060. Meanwhile, men 18 to 24 are a declining proportion of Americans. In 2020 they were an estimated 4.7% of the U.S. Their proportion is projected to decline to 4.5% in 2025 and 4.4% in 2030.”

“The final consideration is the strength of the criminal-justice system. In response to rising crime in the 1970s and ’80s, the system was built up with more police, more prisons and longer sentences. In recent decades imprisonment rates have been falling, mainly because of successful crime reduction, though the decarceration movement has played a role. The imprisoned percentage of the population is at a 25-year low and the black imprisonment rate tumbled 29% from 2009 through 2019. But the pressure to make further reductions is strong and the recent election of district attorneys with qualms about incarcerating criminals suggests that the public in many big cities supports shrinking the system more.

If policy makers keep the justice system strong enough to cope with the latest crime surge, then the U.S. stands a good chance of avoiding the sustained mayhem that tore the country apart for decades.”

That is a big if, considering the extensive the decarceration reforms enacted in California and several other states over the past decade, and political leaders that find it difficult to even acknowledge the spike in crime and violence.


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