For a short period during the closing decade of the last century, U.S. crime rates dropped precipitously. Homicide, burglary and robbery rates fell more than 40 percent, to levels not seen since the 1960s. The reduction in serious felonies per capita stunned criminologists, who have struggled to provide a satisfying explanation for such an unexpected and complex phenomenon. The research community has reached a consensus on the basic contours of the 1990s crime decline--the who, what, when and where--but still argues about the why.
Today, as crime rates are again creeping upward, it seems appropriate to examine the evidence associated with the 1990s drop and the theories put forth to account for it. Such an analysis could help society to better understand the causes underlying shifts in national crime statistics and may even be used to forestall future increases in serious offenses. In this article, I will weigh the relative merits of the leading explanations and present some suggestions for policies and experiments that could help prevent the next rise in criminal activity.
This article was originally published with the title The Case of the Unsolved Crime Decline.