The other day I was perusing Alternet and just generally procrastinating and being unproductive, and I clicked a link that looked mildly interesting: An Astonishing Argument for Why Violent Crime Rates Have Dropped. As Loyal Readers™ well know, I do not generally write about crime per se, although I do write about the militarization of domestic law enforcement, the for-profit prison-industrial complex, the war on
some people who use drugs, rape and domestic violence, prison and sentencing reform, domestic terrorism, and other issues primarily from the perspective of responses to crime and violence, institutional or otherwise. Frankly, I do not know very much about criminology. Like most people I would guess, I had this vague idea about interrelated and seemingly intractable causes of criminal violence: poverty, neglect, abuse, failing schools, multi-generational patterns of substance abuse and domestic violence, genetic predisposition, childhood development, poor nutrition, poor maternal health care, poor mental health care, and probably a half-dozen other contributing factors I could rattle off.
I am also aware that despite the uptick in mass shootings, violent crime has dropped off dramatically in the last several decades, all across the country. After peaking in the early 1990s, by 2010 violent crime rates had dropped like a stone: New York City, down 75 percent. Washington, DC, down 58 percent. Dallas, 70 percent. Newark, 74 percent. Los Angeles, 78 percent. Although no one seemed to understand why this was happening, there was no shortage of theories — and no shortage of people vying for credit, either.
After taking office in 1994, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police chief William Bratton implemented the so-called “broken windows” approach to crime reduction: in a nutshell, the theory was that tolerating petty crimes would lead to a cycle wherein criminality would only escalate. I remember: police began relentlessly cracking down on subway fare cheaters, harmless drunken loiterers, and heretofore unmolested joint smokers. I also remember a proposed initiative to bust jaywalkers like they do in Los Angeles, but New Yorkers revolted. This was a step too far. We’re New Yorkers, goddammit: jaywalking is our fuckin’ way of life.
And lo and behold, over the next few years violent crime in the city did indeed plummet:
In 1996, the New York Times reported that crime had plunged for the third straight year, the sharpest drop since the end of Prohibition. Since 1993, rape rates had dropped 17 percent, assault 27 percent, robbery 42 percent, and murder an astonishing 49 percent. Giuliani was on his way to becoming America’s Mayor and Bratton was on the cover of Time.
Wow, amirite? At this time I was living in Hell’s Kitchen with my ex, and saw with my own eyes the transformation of my neighborhood from a dogforsaken war zone to a thriving community, humming with small restaurants and other mom-&-pop businesses in only a few years time. Ninth Avenue had been pocked with boarded-up storefronts, pawn shops, porn shops, gang graffiti, and rundown bars where, upon entering, it was instantly made clear to Your Humble Monarch™ that “outsiders” were not welcome. On my block I regularly encountered sex workers exhibiting visible signs of brutal violence and prolific drug use, even during daylight hours. Within a few years they had not exactly disappeared, but could now be glimpsed only rarely, and only in the wee hours of the morning. Taking their former places on the sidewalks were young adults and students pursuing careers in the arts, families with young children, and tourists venturing over from Times Square for a reasonably priced pre-theatre dinner. (My ex complained bitterly about the disappearance of so many porn shops and peep shows on 42nd Street. “What’s next?” he lamented, “Is Giuliani going to have us all wearing uniforms now?” He could be a funny motherfucker, I’ll give him that.)
But there is a glaring problem with attributing any of this crime reduction to the dynamic duo of Giuliani and Bratton: violent crime in the city had already peaked in 1990, and showed four years of steady decline before Giuliani took office. More damning than that, the same downward trend was happening everywhere — not just New York.
There were other proposed explanations, including the intuitively reasonable theory that violent crime tracks economic upturns and downturns. But like the failed Giuliani/Bratton hypothesis, it turns out that violent crime trends do not, in fact, track economic data. Ditto for other common theories, like the 1980s crack epidemic, increased incarceration rates, larger police forces, and a provocative idea popularized in 1999 by economist Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame): Roe v. Wade. Yep: “legalized abortion, they argued, led to fewer unwanted babies, which meant fewer maladjusted and violent young men two decades later.”
None of these proposed causes is persuasively correlated, much less conclusively causal.
Which brings me back to the Alternet article I mentioned approximately forty million words ago, An Astonishing Argument for Why Violent Crime Rates Have Dropped, which in turn ultimately led me to this Kevin Drum piece in Mother Jones (on which the Alternet article is based):
America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead
That’s right: lead. As in, Pb(CH2CH3)4. As in, childhood exposure to environmental lead from paint, and much more importantly, from leaded gasoline emissions. It turns out that childhood lead exposure rates track violent crime rates* roughly 20-years down the road, nearly perfectly:
In a 2000 paper (PDF) [US Department of Housing and Urban Development consultant and researcher Rick Nevin] concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Continued research in the intervening years by Nevin and other has only further cemented these findings. In states where lead emissions declined more quickly or slowly, violent crime twenty years later followed the same pattern. The relationship holds for different times, and in different countries. Drum asked Nevin whether in all of his research he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory: “No,” Nevin replied. “Not one.” This year a published paper examined the correlation at the city level:
Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke published a paper with demographer Sammy Zahran on the correlation of lead and crime at the city level. They studied six US cities that had both good crime data and good lead data going back to the ’50s, and they found a good fit in every single one. In fact, Mielke has even studied lead concentrations at the neighborhood level in New Orleans and shared his maps with the local police. “When they overlay them with crime maps,” he told me, “they realize they match up.”
It has long been known that lead exposure in young children is linked with lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency. All of these consequences are profoundly tragic, destroying thousands of young lives before they even begin, not to mention costing society dearly. Yet we have not managed to muster the political will — read: the money — to undertake environmental lead abatement on the scale needed to eradicate it. Even if it were widely accepted that (a) lead exposure is by far the greatest cause of violent crime, and (b) the costs of cleaning it up would yield returns at levels Wall Street hedge funds would envy (a case Drum makes persuasively), it is still difficult to envision meaningful action in the foreseeable future. As I remarked to my co-bloggers this morning, I disagree with this part of Drum’s conclusion:
There’s nothing partisan about this, nothing that should appeal more to one group than another. It’s just common sense.
The prison-industrial complex — specifically the lucrative boom in private, for-profit prisons — as well as the ongoing militarization of law enforcement and related infusions of cash (virtually limitless funding for anything remotely falling under the rubric of “Homeland Security”) for weapons and other “war on terror” technologies for domestic police forces, make for quite the formidable lobby. They are typically Republican paymasters, but spineless Democrats have meekly acquiesced to all of these endeavors, lest they be perceived as Soft on Crime. Worse, Blue Dog Democrats (like Barack Obama) enthusiastically embrace these authoritarian and conservative policies, and in any event are owned by the same constituencies Republicans are.
Drum notes other aspects of the intractability of the status quo and the intransigence of those defending it here:
Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who has studied promising methods of controlling crime, suggests that because criminologists are basically sociologists, they look for sociological explanations, not medical ones. My own sense is that interest groups probably play a crucial role: Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the ’60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously.
More generally, we all have a deep stake in affirming the power of deliberate human action. When Reyes once presented her results to a conference of police chiefs, it was, unsurprisingly, a tough sell. “They want to think that what they do on a daily basis matters,” she says. “And it does.” But it may not matter as much as they think.
That’s all true: all of these factions present serious challenges to meaningful action in their own right. But in a culture that puts profit and power above all else (including crime prevention), with a government that serves the interests of private capital above all else, it’s the money that erects a nearly insurmountable obstacle to “common sense.”
Drum’s piece is an outstanding example of investigative journalism and competent science reporting (now there’s something you just don’t see every day…). I urge you to read the whole thing: the implications are staggering.
Also, I had a terrifying thought: if we did invest in lead abatement and violent crime plummeted over the next two decades as expected, who, exactly, will fill all those empty prison cells?
*Interestingly, lead exposure also tracks teen pregnancy rates.