Why have American crime rates gone down as unemployment rates have gone up?
James Q. Wilson's recent essay in the Wall Street Journal explores this intriguing question.
The factors in play are many. They range from the sociological (the incapacitation effect of extensive incarceration) to the environmental (the decrease in lead in the atmosphere).
Better, data-driven policing can rightly take some of the credit. Targting empiricallly identfiable crime hot spots for a stronger law enforcement presence has been shown to reduce crime in those areas. Some of this reduction, however, is offset by increases in other areas.
And then there is the matter of drug use. For two decades, crack, heroin and other hard drugs have taken a terrible toll, particularly on the black community, in lethal street violence, fatal overdoses and widespread imprisonment. It may be that a younger generation is finally learning hard truths from these consequences.
Wilson rightly ends his essay on a humble, Socratic note. Criminologists, he argues, should admit they don't have all the answers. Such an admission, as Socrates showed, can be the beginning of wisdom.