Reasons for crime's decline

August 31, 1999|By Robert Reno

A STEEPLY falling crime rate has been one of the defining events of the decade, something that would cause most civilized nations to wallow in self-satisfaction.

But perversely, it occurred in a period when the incidental mass homicide became a recurring national event. These shootings have spawned a new TV-news genre, the nonfiction soap opera, during which politicians, social scientists and media pundits all swoon and chant "What did we do wrong?"

Gun owners go on the screaming defensive, and some "expert" invariably suggests that teen-agers or racists likely to become maniacs can be expertly and effectively screened from those who merely act like them.

Lower crime rates also have caused an often nasty debate that goes something like "What did we do right?" Gun owners claim higher gun sales have reduced crime. Law-and-order obsessives cite bulging jails, the high rate at which convicted murderers are being fried, and sentencing policies that often reduce the nation's trial judges to the status of clerks punching tickets to speed the robotic flow of people into the prison system.

This obsession with punishment takes a more alarming form in people such as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who will quickly throw a tantrum, stamping his foot and doing his imitation of the Wicked Witch of the West, if anybody dares to suggest the fall in crime is the result of anything but his policies and his alone.

Never point out to the mayor that crime rates are down everywhere else or that in New York they began falling under his predecessor and then-police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly.

Now the crime debate has been joined by two economists, one from Stanford Law School, the other from the University of Chicago, who have brought a rain of abuse on themselves for their compelling study suggesting much of the fall in crime can be attributed to the increase in abortions since the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973. Their study made a lot of people very nervous, uncomfortable and in some cases hysterical.

To some, it was too much like suggesting we had reduced crime by euthanizing potential criminals. The logic that if there were fewer unwanted children there would be fewer children growing up feeling unwanted and disposed to sociopathic behavior was too perversely Darwinian for some stomachs.

I suspect we may never be able to say why crime declined dramatically but we will know for certain that as many people shamelessly milked the issue when it was going up as crowed for credit when it was going down.

In the end, the decline may have been caused by something as unknowable as the mood of the crime-prone population, which is heavily teen-aged.

What causes it to wear nose rings, to move in aberrational, fad-driven packs, with sometimes violent result, and to just as easily become bored with a current fad is something adolescents can't explain, even when they grow up to be bewildered parents.

Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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