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• JANUARY 5, 2010 Wall Street Journal

A Crime Theory Demolished
The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out
of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice.
As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime
would shoot up, since poverty, as the "root causes" theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the
opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level
since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are
The notion that crime is an understandable reaction to poverty and racism took hold in the early
1960s. Sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin argued that juvenile delinquency was
essentially a form of social criticism. Poor minority youth come to understand that the American
promise of upward mobility is a sham, after a bigoted society denies them the opportunity to
advance. These disillusioned teens then turn to crime out of thwarted expectations.
The theories put forward by Cloward, who spent his career at Columbia University, and Ohlin,
who served presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, provided an intellectual foundation for
many Great Society-era programs. From the Mobilization for Youth on Manhattan's Lower East
Side in 1963 through the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and a host of welfare,
counseling and job initiatives, their ideas were turned into policy.
If crime was a rational response to income inequality, the thinking went, government can best
fight it through social services and wealth redistribution, not through arrests and incarceration.
Even law enforcement officials came to embrace the root causes theory, which let them off the
hook for rising lawlessness. Through the late 1980s, the FBI's annual national crime report
included the disclaimer that "criminal homicide is largely a societal problem which is beyond the
control of the police." Policing, it was understood, can only respond to crime after the fact;
preventing it is the domain of government welfare programs.
The 1960s themselves offered a challenge to the poverty-causes-crime thesis. Homicides rose
43%, despite an expanding economy and a surge in government jobs for inner-city residents. The
Great Depression also contradicted the idea that need breeds predation, since crime rates dropped
during that prolonged crisis. The academy's commitment to root causes apologetics nevertheless
persisted. Andrew Karmen of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice echoed Cloward
and Ohlin in 2000 in his book "New York Murder Mystery." Crime, he wrote, is "a distorted
form of social protest." And as the current recession deepened, liberal media outlets called for
more government social programs to fight the coming crime wave. In late 2008, the New York
Times urged President Barack Obama to crank up federal spending on after-school programs,
social workers, and summer jobs. "The economic crisis," the paper's editorialists wrote, "has
clearly created the conditions for more crime and more gangs—among hopeless, jobless young
men in the inner cities."

Moreover. The spread of data-driven policing has also contributed to the 2000s' crime drop. saw a 17% drop in homicides. rather.1%. during a very different economy.000 to 1. In 2009. the purported association between economic hardship and crime was in shambles.3%. leading to New York's stunning 16-year 77% crime drop. to their lowest level since reliable records were first kept in 1963. violent crime dropped 4. Keeping crime rates low now is the best guarantee that cities across the country will be able to exploit the inevitable economic recovery when it comes.4% and property crime dropped 6.A. Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Unemployment in California is 12. the city's economy revived because crime was cut in half. but homicides in Los Angeles County. the city of L. Mr. Car thefts are down nearly 19%. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. At the start of the recession. As New York Police Commissioner in the mid-1990s. from 300. homicides fell 19%. The causes of that long-term drop are hotly disputed. it holds that policing can and must control crime for the sake of urban economic viability. the state has the moral right and obligation to do so. homicide dropped 10% nationwide in the first six months of 2009. Bratton pioneered the intensive use of crime data to determine policing strategies and to hold precinct commanders accountable—a process known as Compstat. Public safety is the precondition for thriving urban life. In 1990s New York. Bratton's revolutionary policies. — Ms. Car thefts there are down nearly 20%. The recession crime free fall continues a trend of declining national crime rates that began in the 1990s. regardless of economic conditions or income inequality. however much anti-incarceration activists deny it. The crime plunge is sharpest in many areas that have been hit the hardest by the housing collapse. The number of state and federal prisoners grew fivefold between 1977 and 2008. And by the end of 2009. More and more police chiefs have adopted the Compstat philosophy of crime-fighting and the information-based policing techniques that it spawned. Both forms of cost-saving would be self-defeating. The two police leaders were true to their word. The recession could still affect crime rates if cities cut their police forces and states start releasing prisoners early. the two police chiefs who confidently announced that their cities' crime rates would remain recession-proof were Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Printed in The Wall Street Journal.6 million. dropped 25% over the course of 2009. and a 10% drop in violent crimes. but an increase in the number of people incarcerated had a large effect on crime in the last decade and continues to affect crime rates today. page A17 . !2 Even then crime patterns were defying expectations. an 8% drop in property crimes. In New York. the Los Angeles Times reported recently. The Compstat mentality is the opposite of root causes excuse-making. crime did not drop because the economy improved. Commissioner Kelly has continued Mr. Their success in lowering crime shows that the government can control antisocial behavior and provide public safety through enforcing the rule of law.