Rising crime could be the recession's next effect

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Experts say that the next piece of collateral damage from the recession could be a spike in crime, as rising unemployment and widespread law-enforcement budget cuts begin to take their toll.

FBI statistics show that violent crime fell 3.5 percent nationally in the first six months of last year while property crimes dipped 2.5 percent.

Final 2008 statistics aren't yet available, but history and anecdotal evidence suggest that an uptick in crime is imminent, if not already occurring.

A recent survey of 233 police departments by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 100 departments — 43 percent — reported rising levels of what they felt were recession-related crimes.

Forty percent said that thefts had increased in recent months, 39 percent reported that robberies were up and 32 percent said burglaries had surged 20 percent.

That's not surprising, said Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies national crime patterns.

"There's little question that crime rates peak during or, on occasion, immediately after a recessionary period," Rosenfeld said. "And that's been the case for much of the (post-World War II) period."

It's happened in each of the last five recessions, he said.

If crime increases, a wave of public-safety budget cuts will only add to the problem.

"If police departments are already tightening their belts everywhere we look and we are seeing an initial impact on crime, it's quite sobering to think about how things will look six months from now," said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

Declining sales and property taxes are forcing law enforcement agencies across the country to postpone buying equipment, cut recruitment classes, freeze overtime and redeploy staff to save money:

_ In Winthrop, Mass., the chief of police has been laid off.

_ City officials in St. Paul, Minn., are considering turning off half the city's streetlights — every other one — to save $700,000 in electricity over two years.

_ Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has proposed cutting $72 million in funding for sheriff's departments, a 7 percent cut.

_ Atlanta police are taking days off without pay every two weeks.

Some 200 Boston police officers could face layoffs for the first time since 1982 and only the second time in the department's history.

Cutting police officers has long been taboo, but lean finances have erased the stigma.

"Police departments usually are among the last agencies to be cut when the economy turns bad," said Miami Police Chief John Timoney, the president of the Police Executive Research Forum. "The fact that most police departments currently are being asked to make cuts is an indication of how badly this recession is affecting local tax bases."

The new economic stimulus measure should help by providing $1 billion to hire some 5,500 local police officers, $2 billion for state and local crime-fighting programs and another $1 billion to fight Internet child predators and rural and border crime and to pay for programs for battered women.

When coupled with the millions of jobs, extended unemployment benefits and other relief that the stimulus law is expected to provide, there's hope — and precedent — that the economic boost alone could help deter crime.

A 2007 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that relief spending under the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s "lowered property crime in a statistically and economically significant way."

The report found that a 10 percent increase in per-capita relief spending cut the crime rate by 5 to 10 percent.

While the toxic mix of dwindling police resources and more jobless Americans holds the potential for trouble, Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, said that most of the people who lost their jobs weren't likely to resort to crime if money got tight. Instead, it's young people, mainly young men, who create the most trouble.

"The target of attention has got to be teenagers and young adults who can't move into the legitimate economy because the doors are locked," Blumstein said.

As frustration and depression over unemployment and money woes rise among middle-class families, however, emotions are heightened and nerves begin to fray. That could trigger increases in domestic violence as people turn to alcohol and drugs to escape their problems.

"Alcohol is the major source of violence, so that could be a contributing factor in the current economy. And if drug demand goes up, a rejuvenated drug market could appear, and drug markets are notorious for their systemic violence," Blumstein said.

Predicting crime trends has always been a crapshoot, since factors such as opportunity, need and risk change on a daily basis. So while a recession may increase the number of people who are motivated to commit crimes, people's exposure to crime decreases because more of them tend to stay home, particularly at night, rather than going to bars, sporting events and malls, said Lawrence E. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of California-Davis.

The more that people stay in their homes, the less likely they are to experience break-ins, since most thieves prefer to attack unoccupied dwellings, Cohen said.

"If they can't find anything to steal or the items they wish to steal are better guarded, the crime rate will go down," Cohen said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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