The Incredible Plummeting Crime Rate… and What It Means for Human Settlement Patterns

Crime in the United States has receded to the lowest ebb in 40 years, according to the latest Federal Bureau of Investigation uniform crime reports. In a world where everything seems to be falling apart, it’s reassuring to know that one of the country’s great social scourges is relenting.

The decline in crime is occurring across the board, from the largest metropolitan areas to the smallest towns, and it is occurring across all categories, including murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, theft and arson. Most remarkably, the downturn has gained momentum in the past two years. Violent crime fell 5.5% nationally in 2010, following a 5.3% decline the year before, 1.9% in 2008 and 0.7% the year before that. (Major crime tumbled 6.2% in the Richmond region, reports the Times-Dispatch.)

The drop in crime during the most severe, most prolonged economic downturn since the Great Depression demolishes the conventional wisdom that crime is a response to high unemployment and economic hardship, or as the Jets in West Side Story mocked Officer Krupke, “We’re depraved because we’re deprived.”

The incredible plummeting crime rate has baffled social scientists, none of whose theories stand up very well. James Q. Wilson argued recently in the Wall Street Journal that the increase in the incarceration rate can explain only one quarter of the decline. Putting criminals in jail takes them off the streets where they commit crimes. Others have pointed to the aging of the population: A person’s proclivity to commit a crime, especially a violent one, peaks in the 15-to-25 age range and then declines steadily with age. That idea has some appeal but it can’t begin to explain the dramatic fall-off in the past two years.

Better policing — hot spot policing, in particular — has held down crime rates by breaking up criminal hot spots before crime becomes rampant. Other analysts point to the declining use of crack cocaine, which induces violent behavior. Others, noting that that children with high levels of lead in their blood are more likely to be aggressive and violent, cite the banning of lead in gasoline and paint years ago.

Whatever the reason, we can all be thankful. And we can infer that significant social and economic consequences will follow — just as decades of rising crime had social and economic implications. Since World War II, three main conditions drove the middle class out of America’s core urban areas: poor schools, high taxes and high crime rates. Fearing crime, Americans sought the tranquility of what they called the “suburbs,” or, more precisely, the ring of counties outside the core urban jurisdiction. While poor schools and high taxes will continue to deter some families from urban living, the decreased prevalence of crime will encourage empty nesters to move closer to the urban core where they can avail themselves of cultural attractions and other amenities.

Declining crime constitutes one more reason, along with rising energy prices, traffic congestion and the popping of the housing-finance bubble, to believe that population growth and development in Virginia’s metropolitan areas will stop pushing inexorably outward. Developers’ attention will shift from building auto-centric subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks in the middle of nowhere to creating walkable, mixed-use communities closer to the urban core.

If, as I suspect, Virginia will see more re-development and less greenfield development, state transportation policy should reflect this reality, and so should the comprehensive plans of Virginia’s fast-growth counties. We’re not in the 2000s anymore. It’s time to update our thinking.

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