Why Crime Is an Non-Issue in This Election

Freakonomics author takes on the convential wisdom about what causes crime.

ByABC News via logo

Jan. 17, 2008 — -- During most election cycles violent crime is usually a topic on the campaign trail, but this year it has been a nonissue.

Still crime has an impact on the economy, which is on everyone's minds and "Freakonomics" author Stephen Dubner talks about how crime affects our lives and wallets.

A strong economy or a weak economy doesn't really affect crime a lot. There's a very weak relationship between an economy and crime. Number of police on the street has a big effect. So right now, perhaps heading into a recession, people worry, will crime get worse? The short answer is probably not unless it leads to fewer police.

Capitol punishment, it turns out, is not really a deterrent on crime because of the way it's carried out in this country — the long lag. If we were to be the kind of country where capital punishment were to be carried out the minute after you committed or were convicted of a crime and you killed people on the spot, that would change the scenario. Prison, meanwhile, is a huge one. There are a lot of reasons to not be happy about the fact that we have more than 2 million people in prison in this country. But the number of prisoners has a strong effect on how much crime there is, and the more people we put in prison the less crime there is.

Years ago people were thinking that as the country gets older there would be less crime because older people aren't criminals, but that shift happens very slowly and does not have a big effect on crime.

The legalization of abortion did have an effect. Unwanted children are basically at a much greater risk for being born into the circumstances where they're more likely to lead a criminal life. That's certainly not every unwanted child. However, you saw that a generation later, after Roe vs. Wade, the generation included fewer unwanted children and therefore fewer criminals.

They don't have nearly the effect as people might think or hope. The reason is this: When you have a regulation against guns, but there's a big existing black market working against that regulation, it kind of takes away the effect. In other words, you can make all the gun laws you want, but if there's a thriving black market — as there is in this country for guns and you can still get a gun pretty easily — the law is not going to stop much crime and that's what we found.

Drugs are a big one, especially crack. The crack market turned out to be a very violent one. It was a struggle for turf. It was a struggle for profits and people were willing to kill and die for that. Crack has subsided. It hasn't gone away, but it has subsided a lot and therefore a lot of the violence with it. So all of these things we're talking about made crime fall in the last 20 years. The good news is none of them seem poised to change greatly in the coming months or years, and therefore the crime picture continues to look pretty good which is why you're not going to hear about it on the campaign trail.

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