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Commentary: The crime rate won't behave

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2011 - James Q. Wilson is the dean of American political science. He's a well-respected scholar whose decades of research have earned him a deserved reputation for intellectual rigor and academic excellence.

Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Professor Wilson points out that the crime rate is misbehaving. According to orthodox theory, a rise in the unemployment rate should trigger a corresponding rise in the incidence of property-crime. The usual rule of thumb is that a 1 percent increase in the former produces a 2 percent increase in the latter. Yet, with unemployment currently at levels not seen since the Great Depression, crime continues to decline.

The postulated link between crime and economics is derived from a reasonable assumption that Wilson formulates as follows: "When less legal work is available, more illegal 'work' takes place." That argument appeals to common sense because everybody needs money to survive, but it does not conform well to observable data.

It's difficult to accurately gauge the crime rate from the first half of the 20th century because the statistics are untrustworthy. The Uniform Crime Report wasn't instituted until the mid-1930s and even then, how incidents were reported from a given agency to the next could vary. One measure that affords a reliable count is the number of police officers killed while trying to enforce the law.

In the 150 years history of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 164 officers have died in line of duty. Some of these men -- and yes, all were men -- were killed accidentally. The overwhelming majority, however, were murdered in violent confrontations with criminals.

In the 14 years of 1920 through 1933, 53 officers were killed. That span represents just 8.7 percent of the police department's past but accounts for almost one-third (32.3 percent) of its slain cops. During those years, officers were killed at the rate of once every 3.16 months. For the remainder of the sample (111 deaths in 136 years), the average improves to once every 14.7 months -- less than one-fourth the period's rate.

Clearly, economic conditions cannot explain this surge in bloodshed. Prosperity ruled through most of the Roaring 20s until the stock market crash of October 1929, ushered in the Great Depression. Yet, boom or bust, the elevated kill rate adhered until the end of 1933 when it began to return to normal. In fact, the kill rate was actually higher during the good economic years of the period than it was during the bad ones. What gives?

The answer to this riddle is, of course, Prohibition and the gangland violence it spawned. In the 14 years preceding Prohibition, 35 officers were killed. In the 14 years after, 12 perished. While other factors were obviously at play, it's clear that the so-called noble experiment of outlawing alcohol proved deadly for St. Louis cops.

Viewed in larger context, the economy often appears to fluctuate independently of the incidence of crime. The national unemployment rate for the second half of the 1960s, for instance, was essentially the same as that of the second half of the 1990s. During the former period, crime skyrocketed; during the latter, it fell.

A serious shortcoming of the economic hypothesis is its failure to consider the mitigating influence of the modern welfare state. Public assistance and unemployment insurance allow the disadvantaged to subsist without resorting to criminal behavior. Jean Valjean doesn't have to steal bread to feed his starving family if he's eligible for food stamps.

While welfare lessens the economic motivation for crime, it hardly eliminates the criminal impulse. How to deter people from acting on that impulse is a matter of some conjecture. There is no facile solution to that problem, but I can offer a useful perspective for analysis.

Most of us are pessimists. We figure if we commit a crime we'll get caught and punished. For us, the mere existence of a threatened sanction is sufficient to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Those of us who aren't pessimists, are optimists. These people don't worry about punishment because they don't plan to get caught. The only way to deal with these folks is to dampen their confidence.

The June 5 Post-Dispatch featured a front-page article about one Rodney Lee Lincoln. He's serving life for the brutal murder of a woman that occurred 29 years ago. Project Innocence is appealing his conviction. Without commenting on the merits of that case, two salient facts in the story caught my attention.

The first was that an alternate suspect has been suggested. That man had pled guilty to shooting someone in a tavern the year before. By the time the crime for which Lincoln was convicted took place, he was already out of the penitentiary and in a halfway house. That's rehabilitation in the express lane.

The second was that Lincoln, himself, had previously been convicted of a different murder. He served two years for that offense -- or, as he described it, "I paid my dues." It's encouraging to note that Mr. Lincoln has been able to put this unfortunate incident behind him. His victim may be finding a bit more difficult to do so.

The two prime suspects could have both been in prison at the time of the murder. Had they been where they belonged, the slain woman may be alive today.

The "Catch & Release" approach to criminal justice has fallen from favor in recent decades. As incarceration rates have increased, crime rates have plunged. Turns out it's hard to burgle a dwelling in your cellblock because everybody's always at home.

Analysts William Spelman and Steven Levitt have calculated that "one-quarter or more" of the current decline in crime is due to increased incarceration. Professor Wilson agrees. Personally, I'll take the over on that bet.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.