Criminologists have long contended that crime increases when the economy struggles. But new numbers from the FBI show that the opposite seems to have happened during the recent downturn.
In a survey of more than 13,000 police agencies
released this week, the FBI reported that violent crimes
such as murder, rape, robbery and assault
declined 5.5 percent nationally in 2010. The decrease occurred in all regions of the country, but was led by the South, where violent crimes decreased 7.5 percent from their 2009 levels. The Midwest and West also registered significant decreases of 5.9 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively.
Criminal justice experts were pleasantly shocked by the statistics, using words such as "remarkable" and "amazing" in interviews with The New York Times
, which noted that violent crimes
now appear to be approaching their lowest level in 40 years
. The 9.5-percent decrease in robberies last year was especially noteworthy, given that conventional wisdom has long held that robberies would rise because of economic pressures.
Also noteworthy is that major crime is decreasing at the same time that prison populations in many states are declining. A report by the Pew Center on the States
's parent organization, last year found that state prisoner totals dropped in 2010 for the first time in 38 years as lawmakers sought alternatives to incarceration, often to save money as their budgets shrank.
The new FBI numbers are sure to revive a fierce debate over the connection between prison populations and crime rates. Lawmakers in many states have embraced policies that allow for some inmates to leave prison ahead of schedule or serve their time under less-costly community supervision, arguing that the United States incarcerates far too many people at too great a cost.
Others, however, believe more lenient policies will simply result in more crime, contending that the nation's violent crime rate has been declining over the last few decades precisely because more offenders have been locked away. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito made just that argument this week when he dissented from a ruling
ordering California to trim its huge prison population by more than 30,000 inmates in the next two years.