The most important social trend of the past 20 years is as positive as it is underappreciated: the United States' plunging crime rate.
Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in the United States fell 51 percent, from 9.8 per 100,000 residents to 4.8 per 100,000. Property crimes such as burglary also fell sharply during that period; auto theft, once the bane of urban life, dropped an astonishing 64 percent. And FBI data released Dec. 19 show that the trends continued in the first half of 2011. With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957.
To be sure, the United States is still more violent than Europe or Canada, and that's nothing to brag about. But this country is far, far safer than it was as recently as the late 1980s, when the movie Robocop, set in a future dystopia of rampant urban mayhem, both expressed and exploited the public's belief that criminals ruled the streets — and always would.
We are reaping a domestic peace dividend, and it can be measured in the precious coin of human life. Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring has found that the death rate for young men in New York today is half what it would have been if homicides had continued unabated.
The psychological payoff, too, is enormous. Only 38 percent of Americans say they fear walking alone at night within a mile of their homes, according to Gallup, down from 48 percent three decades ago.
Lower crime rates also mean one less source of political polarization. In August 1994, 52 percent of Americans told Gallup that crime was the most important issue facing the country; in November 2011, only 1 percent gave that answer. Think political debate is venomous now? Imagine if law and order were still a "wedge issue."
Did I mention the economic benefits? Safe downtowns draw more tourists for longer stays. Fewer car thefts mean lower auto insurance rates. Young people who don't get murdered grow up to produce goods and services.
Plunging crime rates also debunk conventional wisdom, left and right. Crime's continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the liberal myth that hard times force people into illegal activity — that, like the Jets in West Side Story, crooks are depraved on account of being deprived. Yet recent history also refutes conservatives who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage "superpredators" would unleash a new crime wave.
Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates, confirming the liberal worldview. Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities, consistent with conservative theory. Contrary to liberal belief, incarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime. Contrary to conservative doctrine, crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place.
On the whole, though, what's most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes. Take the increase in state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008. This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime — and its most troubling byproduct. But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink. Crime fell in New York faster than in any other U.S. city over the past two decades — but New York locked up offenders at a below-average rate, according to Zimring's new book, The City That Became Safe.
"What went wrong?" is the question that launched a thousand blue-ribbon commissions. But we also need to investigate when things go right — especially when, as in the case of crime, success defied so many expert predictions.
Clearly the experts underestimated Americans' capacity to take on a seemingly intractable problem and fix it. The decline of crime, writes Zimring, "provides a decisive response to one of the deepest fears generated in the last third of the 20th century. We now know that life-threatening crime is not an incurable disease in the United States."
© 2011 Washington Post