The devil in the crime rate details

At The Atlantic, David Frum has an article on “Can America Have Fewer Prisoners Without More Crime?” that is receiving some attention within conservative circles.

Frum’s article is thoughtful and offers some wise cautionary advice regarding whether or not crime policies in the U.S. should be changed in light of the declining American crime rate since the early 1990s.  But in the social sciences, as with the natural sciences, the devil is in the details – and there are some details that need to be discussed.

Within the context of the crime policy debate, Frum compares the decline in the U.S. crime rate to that in some other Western nations:

Change is in the air, however. For one thing, the present U.S. approach to crime-fighting is hugely expensive. A year in prison costs state taxpayers an average of $31,000. In California, the cost rises to $47,000, thanks to higher health costs and a powerful prison-guard union. Other democracies have achieved considerable crime reduction since the early 1990s without imprisoning anything like so many people. Look at the U.K. for example: Britain imprisons only 85,000 people, as compared to more than 2.2 million in the United States. Australia and Canada show similar trends, likewise with smaller prison populations.

The details matter here.  The most impressive reduction in crime that has taken place since 1991 is that of violent crime.  The U.S. violent crime rate has declined 49 percent over this time.  The corresponding reduction in Canada has been only 19 percent – a huge difference.

In 2006, the Australian Institute of Criminology conducted a study of the comparative violent crime rates in England and Wales, the U.S., Canada, and Australia since the early 1960s.

Not only does the U.S. have, by far, the lowest recorded violent crime rate among these four countries, but the trends since the early 1990s are very different.

The recorded violent crime rate in the U.K. exploded, Australia’s increased substantially, and – as noted already – Canada’s declined only marginally. In comparison, the U.S. violent crime rate underwent a massive decline.  Data available since 2004 only reinforce these conclusions.

Consequently, these nations don’t have “similar trends” in crime once we look more closely.

The United States has a much higher incarceration rate than the other three nations.  One also notes that the U.S. has a much higher gun ownership rate, and far more robust gun rights, than any of these nations.  Coincidentally – or perhaps not a coincidence at all – the recorded violent crime rate in the U.S. is much lower, and declining far more rapidly, than these other jurisdictions.