Hard times and crime? Just you wait


The economy is a wreck, and crime is down. Does that mean hard times and lawbreaking aren’t linked?

Two weeks ago, L.A. crime statistics came out for the misery-filled first 4 1/2 months of 2009, and they were, to me, a weird ray of sunshine.

Nationally, crime has been up in some places and down in others. But overall? Dramatically down. And here in Los Angeles, the drop is particularly stunning. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, compared with the same period in 2008, homicide is down by 32%; rape 12%; robbery 3%; burglary 6%, and grand theft auto a shocking 18%.


What gives?

As it turns out, it’s not all that easy to figure out why crime goes up and down. There are a lot of factors and even more theories. Chief William Bratton would probably say it’s all about his police force and his style of policing, and he gets a fair amount of credit for a job well done.

“Smart, effective policing seems to be keeping a lid” on crime, said George Tita, a professor in UC Irvine’s criminology, law and society department, in a Times report in April. But that isn’t the whole story, and it doesn’t mean that unemployment, home foreclosures, financially battered school systems and public services don’t and won’t have an impact on wrongdoing.

I called Mark A.R. Kleiman, who teaches public policy at UCLA. He started by telling me point-blank that “crime rates are not actually linked to economic cycles.”

He pointed out that the 1950s were a time of slow economic growth and low crime rates, while the booming late-1960s saw a boom in criminal activity. He noted that no Great Crime Wave emerged to match the Great Depression. I then asked him why most people seem to think that economics and crime are related. He said that it’s logical and even to some degree true, but it’s all in the way you define “link.” Ripple effect might be a better image.

As L.A.’s most recent crime data suggest, high unemployment doesn’t necessarily translate directly into high crime rates. But that’s because the specific economic pinch in itself is not the immediate cause of criminal activity. What does seem to translate into crime is long-term economic trouble. One theory holds that the motivation toward criminal acts increases with prolonged social strain. Strain is the pressure people feel between their goals and their means to achieve them. One consequence of unrelieved strain is that the desire to achieve one’s goals leads some to use illegitimate means to get where they want to go.

“Long-term material conditions are important,” UC Irvine criminologist Elliott Currie told me. “They can affect values and the belief in what kinds of conduct are acceptable or not. If you put people in really lousy conditions, they’ll begin to think differently about school, drugs or gangs.”


Another way to think about all this is to fit it into the basic left/right analysis of crime and social dysfunction. Liberals argue that society’s negative or unfair structures are the main impediments to individuals’ success. Conservatives tend to blame bad personal behavior for bad outcomes. In the battle between what might be called structuralism and behavioralism, the truth is that if you step far enough back, the whole thing is a big feedback loop.

Economic and social conditions affect how people see their futures and how they choose to see and interact with the world around them. In other words, left and right are both correct, if we wait long enough. Just as behavior and culture create conditions, conditions shape culture and behavior.

That means that, even after the recession ends, the bad economic statistics that have described the last year could still turn into bad crime statistics. It’s especially likely if, as some economists fear, the recovery fails to recoup hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been lost in such industries as car manufacturing and financial services.

That will mean the discrepancy between what many of us want and what we can get will deepen, social strain will increase, and maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, the other shoe will drop.

In the meantime, count your crime statistics blessings, but don’t fool yourself: Crime and hard times do go hand in hand.