Franklin Zimring, The Great American Crime Decline (forthcoming 2006).
Chapter 1 – The Purposes and Limits of Punishment
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The most comprehensive assessment to date of the 1990’s crime decline has comefrom Prof. Franklin Zimring, in his book
The Great American Crime Decline.
Zimringnotes that the period from 1991 to 2001 was remarkable for its length andconsistency—crime dropped each year for nine years in a row, in every region of thecountry, and for every demographic group. In this decade, all seven major index offenses(homicide, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, auto theft, and larceny) declinedsignificantly, with aggregate declines ranging from 23 percent to 44 percent. Lessserious offenses (i.e., drug and alcohol offenses, sexual misconduct, assault, weaponscharges) showed a smaller decline, though Zimring notes that the latter offenses are moredifficult to calculate since they are less likely to result in arrests.Recent analyses like Levitt’s rely on highly sophisticated techniques of multipleregression analysis to identify and test possible causal factors in the context of the widestpossible array of variables. Zimring is one of those criminologists who remain wary of overconfidence in these techniques to capture all necessary factors, especially where theresults of the econometric analyses seem intuitively implausible or contradict otherevidence that is not fully measurable. Contrary to analysts who have purported to explainmajor portions of the decline by various theories, Zimring argues that natural cyclicalforces could be responsible for about half of the decline and that because of the gradualand continuous character of the crime rate change, it may be impossible to identify onedominant cause.Zimring undertakes a skeptical review of some of the major theories. Forexample, he casts doubt on the power of increased incarceration rates to explain the drop,by virtue of either their incapacitative or deterrent effects. He points out thatincarceration had begun increasing drastically throughout the 1970s and 1980s with noapparent effect on crime rates, and that the largest increase in imprisonment happenedduring the five years following 1986, a period of increasing crime. Further, he argues,the principle of diminishing marginal returns (that if we put away the most dangerouscriminals first and gradually put away less dangerous ones, the number of remainingoffenders who have a high likelihood of repeat or multiple offenses would declinerapidly) would indicate that the longer the time that incarceration increased, the
effect it would have on the national crime rate.On other explanatory theories, Zimring: