Crime rates in American are slowly going down

In the 1980s the United States was at its peak homicide rate and things were looking bleak. Politicians began embracing “tough-on-crime” reforms and experts warned that the worst was far from over. But less than five years later, that number fell by around one-third; rates fell for all types of crime, including robbery, burglary, motor theft and homicide.

Crimes in the U.S. per 100,000 people

From there, the trend has continued and Americans live in one of the least violent times in history. There’s no one reason that the crime rate dropped so drastically, and ironically incarceration eventually proved to be quite ineffective. However, there are many factors that influenced the crime rate in the late 20th century.


A report published in 2014 from Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found that incarceration is “diminishing marginal returns,” or in other words, making incarceration less effective the more we use it. The report finds that incarceration in the U.S. has reached the point where it no longer provides substantial crime reduction benefits. As more low-level offenders are shoved into prisons, their incarceration accordingly has a smaller effect on reducing crime as a whole.

Policies created during the War on Drugs increased the use of incarceration as a punishment, including the creation of mandatory minimums, funding on a federal level for the construction of more prisons, both which expanded the prison population.

As more people are put into the prison system, an individual’s imprisonment has a smaller impact on crime reduction as a whole. The rate of incarceration jumped by more than 60 percent between 1990 and 1999 and the rate of crime fell by 28 percent. In the next decade the incarceration rate rose just 1 percent, but the rate of crime fell by 27 percent. 

Incarceration has been becoming less effective as a crime deterrent over the years and its overuse is the primary reason it has become so ineffective. The large increase of prisoners between 1990 and 1999 was largely because of the amount of non-violent and drug offenders; today half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug offences, and two-thirds are simply waiting for a trial. When the prison system is used selectively and sparingly, its cells are reserved for the most dangerous and high-risk offenders.

Prison may occasionally cause prisoners to commit more crimes when they are released, and this effect is especially powerful on low-level offenders. Once someone enters prison, they are surrounded by by prisoners who have generally committed more violent crimes. Upon release, it can be hard for someone to find a job and reintegrate into society because of socioeconomic barriers, which can cause a person to turn to for-profit crimes. Research from the Arnold Foundation indicates just this: the longer the pre-trail detention, the higher the chance of new criminal activity, even after the trail has finished.

Unsafe prison conditions also have an effect on a prisoner’s reintegration into society. Over time prison conditions have become overcrowded while the privatization of the prison system has caused them to deteriorate even more. Poor sanitation, violence and inadequate access to medical care can cause prisoner’s mental and physical health to deteriorate greatly, making it all but possible to properly integrate back into society.

Crime versus incarceration rates in the U.S.

Between 1990 and 1999, the imprisonment rate rose by more than 60 percent and the violent crime rate fell by 28 percent. In the following decade, the incarceration rate rose by only 1 percent, but crime fell by 27 percent.

The main purpose of punishment is deterrence, and it is often thought that the severity of the punishment will stop other offenders from committing the crimes out of fear of punishment. Questions remain as to whether longer sentences have a bigger impact on stopping crime, and the National Academy of Sciences states that “insufficient evidence exists to justify predicating policy choices on the general assumption that harsher punishments yield measurable deterrent effects.” Violent crimes, as opposed to other types of crime, are usually based upon someone’s passion and therefore severe incarceration may not always have an impact on the decision to engage in criminal behaviour.

Crime and Reporting

Policing is the kill-all force that can greatly affect crime and incarceration rates, but it is impossible to measure how effective a handful of tactics used by different agencies are. There are a few different strategies that police departments utilize, including “broken windows policing” (hoping that catching people who commit low-level crimes will stop more serious crime), “hot-spot policing” (focusing resources on a specific area), and “stop and frisk” (conducting random pat-downs).

Predictive policing, however, is consistently one of the most widespread techniques used in police forces. Departments will use it differently to catch people committing different crimes, but the objective to implement good management and accountability throughout police departments remains the same.

There are several other factors that played a large impact on the reduction in the United States, and an increase in the number of police officers is one that had a modest impact on crime beginning in the early 1990s, but that has since plateaued as police forces hire less and less officers and focus on the existing resources they have at-hand.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, better known as the “1994 Crime Bill,” had a major impact on the amount of crimes committed. It was a move by Congress that provided funding for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion funding for prisons and $6.1 billion for crime prevention programs, which were created with significant input from police officers. Following several high-profile violent crimes like the 101 California Street shooting, the act also expanded federal laws. Sections included the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, an expanded federal death penalty, classes of individuals banned from owning firearms, and a new crimes relating to immigration law, hate, sex, and gang-related crimes. The law required all states to create a sex offender registry by September 1997 too.

Economists Hope Corman and H. Naci Mocan found that between 1970 and 1996, police officers had a significant effect of reducing robberies and burglaries, but did not have the same effect on murder and auto theft. It is their jobs to both prevent and respond to crime, and are generally the first point of contact because they are the most visible to the public. Enforcement itself can be a powerful disincentive for someone to cause a crime.

While it is logical to assume that capital punishment would decrease crime effectively, research indicates that the death penalty does not have much of an effect on lowering murder numbers. Capital punishment occurs too infrequently to properly measure its effects.

Social, Economic and Environmental Factors

The “right-to-carry” law, which grants people the right to carry concealed handguns in public, is a commonly theorized reason that there is an increase in crime. Past research states that this law does not do anything to decrease or prevent crimes, and more often than not increases levels of crime. However, the National Rifle Association maintains a philosophy that if someones suspects a potential victim is likely to have a concealed gun, the act of committing a crime will be less appealing to them. Mark Duggan found that gun ownership increases homicide rates, and Ian Ayres discovered that this law may lead to an increased robbery and property crime rate.

Another factor in determining what causes crime is the level of unemployment in the community. An increase in joblessness can lead to a slight increase in crime, specifically around property crime, but does not have the same effect with other crime types. Higher income can both decrease the incentive to commit crime for a profit, while it can also open people up to more opportunities to commit a crime, such as fraud or property theft.

Finally, research tells us that increased alcohol consumption contributes to increased crime rates. 40 percent of state prisoners convicted of violent crimes were under the effects of alcohol when they committed the crime.

📸: Wikimedia 📊: Bureau of Justice Statistics and Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics.