Monday, July 14, 2008
During the summer, people interact more than during colder months of the year. Once they interact, tempers can flare for all kinds of reasons, and interpersonal violence can result. The summer heat can also cause tempers to be short, again leading to violence. A crime like robbery is also more common during the summer than the winter. During the winter, fewer people (i.e., potential robbery victims) are out on the streets at night, and fewer robbers are out on the streets as well. Because there is a lower “supply” of both robbers and victims, robbery rates are lower.
What about property crime? Here, too, opportunity matters. During the summer, people spend more time away from their homes, and, when they do so, are more likely to leave a window open. Their homes are thus easier targets for burglars during the summer than during other times of the year. For similar reasons, there is also more opportunity for larceny—pickpocketing, shoplifting, bicycle theft, and so forth—and motor vehicle theft to occur.
Seasonal crime rates are very interesting but, after some reflection, not very surprising. The warm days of the summer promote crime and victimization, while the cold days of the winter (at least in areas of the nation that have winter!) inhibit crime and victimization. Perhaps it’s no accident that the states with the lowest crime rates are those at the top of the U.S. map. They tend to be cold much of the year, and they also tend to be fairly rural (partly because they’re so cold). As I always tell my students here in Maine, never leave our great state if you want to be safe from crime!
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Holding other factors constant, states with higher rates of gun ownership tend to have higher suicide rates, and households with firearms inside tend to have higher suicide rates as well. These findings do not necessarily prove a firearm-suicide causal link, but they certainly indicate that firearm ownership is a significant risk factor for suicide. Many suicide researchers are convinced that the legal ownership of firearms contributes mightily to the U.S. suicide rate.
Ironically, many law-abiding people buy firearms for self-protection. However, the suicide research strongly suggests that these supposed self-protection devices often have the opposite effect by facilitating the suicide of someone in the home where the firearm is kept. Far from preserving life, firearm ownership helps take it away.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
This last point merits further discussion. As part of the “get tough on crime” approach that has guided U.S. criminal justice policy since the 1970s, states began to transfer many juvenile offender cases into the adult legal system where, it was felt, juveniles would receive harsher punishment and thus be less likely to commit new offenses once they had served their sentence.
Ironically, however, the transfer movement had the opposite effect. Several studies show that juveniles whose cases are transferred to adult court are in fact more likely (compared to matched cases kept in juvenile court) to reoffend. Why do juvenile offenders become worse if they end up in the adult system? As the Times editorial suggests, a major reason is that they come into contact with adult offenders. Once they do so, they are vulnerable and thus victimized both physically and emotionally. Compared to juvenile facilities, adult facilities also lack counseling and other programs that can be very effective in helping youthful offenders. Although the transfer movement may have been well intentioned, it has worsened juvenile crime instead of reducing it.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Recently George Will, the national syndicated columnist, wrote a column in which he argued that the prison expansion of the last few decades led to a significant decline in the
Although Will cited several kinds of evidence for his argument, The Sentencing Project soon issued a report, “Do More Prisoners Equal Less Crime? A Response to George Will” (http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin%5CDocuments%5Cpublications%5Cwill_overall%20response.pdf) that refuted his evidence. Among other things, this report pointed out that states with lower increases in incarceration during the 1990s had greater crime declines than states with higher increases in incarceration. Other evidence cited by the report shows that increasing incarceration during the 1990s accounted for only about 25% of the crime decline during that decade; factors such as a change in drug trafficking markets and an improved economy probably played a much more important role. This increasing incarceration cost the nation billions of dollars that would have reduced crime more effectively had it been instead spent on crime prevention programs, such as early childhood intervention efforts directed at families whose children are most at risk for delinquency and crime as they grow up.
It is tempting and almost natural for Americans to believe that harsher sentencing practices and higher incarceration rates must be very effective in reducing crime. However, much research finds that this is not the case. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the nation has wasted (in terms of reducing crime) most of the tens of billions of dollars it has spent on prisons and prisoners during the past few decades. This huge expenditure has certainly not made the nation much safer, and there is good reason to believe that it aggravates the very crime problem it is intended to relieve. I’ll return to this theme in a later posting.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Today the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution does not permit an absolute prohibition on the private ownership of firearms. The Court’s ruling implied that some restrictions on firearm ownership will be allowed, and no doubt this issue will keep the courts occupied for many years to come.
Left unsaid in the ruling is whether our nation will be safer or less safe if, as expected, at least some of the gun control laws and regulations now in place weaken or are abolished altogether, as will certainly happen in Washington, DC, the immediate focus of the Court’s ruling. The evidence on whether firearm ownership makes us safer or less safe is very complex, and experts on both sides of the issue are very persuasive. The findings from much research on this important topic are too complicated and detailed to discuss here completely, but a few observations are in order.
First, defensive gun use (DGU) does exist and should not be overlooked by gun control proponents. Law-abiding owners of guns have used them, and continue to use them, in self-defense.
Second, estimates of DGU incidents range widely from 65,000 incidents annually to as many as 2.5 million. The lower-range estimates seem more accurate and amount to only a very low percentage of all violent crime. Thus, to the extent DGU exists, it helps prevent only a very low amount of violent crime, meaning that firearm ownership is not very helpful in this respect. Moreover, while DGU by an intended victim may prevent a crime from occurring, it may also make it more likely that the intended victim is seriously injured or killed. And some evidence indicates that DGU helps some segments of the population (i.e. men but not women) more than others. Taking everything into account, firearm ownership seems to offer only small protection against criminal victimization.
Third, much evidence, some of it gathered by public health researchers, indicates that firearm ownership actually contributes to a greater rate of homicides and other gun crimes. Households with guns suffer higher murder rates than households (matched on various characteristics such as drug and alcohol use and a history of domestic violence) without guns. States with higher rates of firearm ownership have higher rates of homicides committed with guns but not higher rates of non-gun homicides. These patterns do not “prove” that gun ownership makes us less safe, but they are suggestive.
To me, some of the most persuasive evidence of the lethal effects of gun ownership comes from international research. Compared to other western nations, the
Taking all the evidence into account, on balance firearm ownership in the
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Back to the title of this posting, today's Supreme Court decision that by a 5-4 vote outlawed the death penalty for child rape. As a strong opponent of the death penalty, I applaud this decision. Perhaps the reasons for my opposition to capital punishment will be the subject of a later posting, but, briefly, the death penalty doesn't deter crime, it is more expensive than life imprisonment, it is arbitrary and racially discriminatory, and it leaves open the possibility that innocent people may be executed. Because the U.S. is the only western nation that has the death penalty, capital punishment should also be judged as beyond what democracies should be doing in the contemporary world.
For all these reasons, child rape does not deserve the death penalty, no matter how heinous child rape is, and it is certainly about the most horrible crime one can imagine. For these same reasons, I am disappointed with Barack Obama's pronouncement later today that he disagreed with the Supreme Court's ruling in that he thinks child rape is so heinous that it does deserve the death penalty. I am a strong Obama supporter, and I recognize that politicians feel the need to look tough on crime (perhaps also the subject of a later posting). Having said that, Obama should know better than to support the death penalty, and he should have supported the Court's decision while making quite clear his disgust over child rape.