Monday, July 14, 2008

Summertime=Crime Time?

Because it’s now the middle of July, it’s appropriate to talk about U.S. crime rates during the summertime. Violent and property crime rates are typically higher during the summer than during other times of the year. What accounts for this seasonal trend? A major reason has to do with the opportunity for crime and victimization.

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

Guns and Suicide

A column in yesterday’s Washington Post ( examined the important issue of guns and suicide. Almost 33,000 suicides--about twice as many as homicides--occur annually in the United States. About half of suicides are committed with firearms. Because about 400,000 people try to kill themselves every year and only 33,000 complete their attempts, it’s obvious that guns greatly increase the chances that an attempted suicide will end in death.

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

How not to treat juvenile offenders

Today’s New York Times has a nice editorial ( ) supporting Senate legislation that would restrict the housing of juvenile offenders in adult jails. As the editorial points out, a report by Campaign for Youth Justice found that 150,000 juveniles are held in adult jails annually. In these jails, the editorial noted, these youths “are more likely to be battered, traumatized and transformed into hard-core, recidivist criminals.”

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

Do more prisons equal less crime?

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 U.S. crime rate.

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” ( 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

Guns and Today's Supreme Court Decision on 2nd Amendment

In a recent syndicated column (“More Prisons, Less Crime,” Washington Post, June 22, 2008), commentator George Will argues that the world record incarceration rate in the United States has produced safer streets and has been beneficial in particular to A

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 U.S. has an average rate of aggravated assault—we are higher than some nations but lower than others. The major difference between an aggravated assault and a homicide is whether a victim dies. Thus, it is notable that even though the U.S. has an average rate of aggravated assault, it has by far the highest rate of homicide. The presence of guns in America makes it much more likely that an assault ends in death.

Taking all the evidence into account, on balance firearm ownership in the United States increases the number of crimes in which guns play a key role: homicide and robbery. DGU does exist, but any protective effects of firearm ownership are outweighed by its lethal effects. If this is true, the Supreme Court’s weakening of firearm control may ironically have set the stage for an increase in homicides in the years ahead.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Supreme Court decision on death penalty for child rape

Hello, this is a new blog devoted primarily to crime and criminal justice issues. I am a professor of sociology at the University of Maine and the author of several books and other publications on crime, justice, and related issues. My latest book, Myths and Realities of Crime and Justice: What Every American Should Know, was co-authored with George Bryjak and just published earlier this week by Jones and Bartlett. As the book's title implies, we discuss realities and misconceptions of crime and criminal justice in the United States. This short and affordable book discusses the causes of crime and how the criminal justice system really works, as opposed to how it is supposed to work (with chapters on crime, victims, courts and trials, and prisons), and it discusses many myths about crime and justice that the media promote and the public holds. It should be interesting and informative reading for anyone concerned about crime and justice in the United States.

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.