1999 the year in review:
To reduce crime, just abort criminals
The Supreme Courts most meaningful decision in the area of crime control? A new study suggests it might be Roe v. Wade, but skepticism abounds.
After six years in a row, the fact that the nations crime rate fell yet again in 1999 came as less of a surprise than a theory that emerged last year in an attempt to explain the decrease. As one criminologist noted, it takes great skill to simultaneously infuriate the right and the left, which is exactly what two researchers did when they posited that the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for as much as half of the countrys overall reduction in crime.
According to the authors of Legalized Abortion and Crime, Dr. John J. Donohue 3rd of Stanford Law School and Dr. Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago, children whose circumstances of birth and parentage would have made them more likely to commit criminal acts when they reached the ages of 18 through 24 were instead aborted. There is a correlation, they stated, between this period and the recession in crime that began in 1992.
Moreover, those states where abortion was legalized prior to the Supreme Courts Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 such as New York, California, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii have had greater reductions in crime with earlier onsets than in other states. We predict that crime rates will continue to fall slowly for an additional 15-20 years as the full effects of legalized abortion are gradually felt, wrote the authors.
While acknowledging that such factors as community policing programs, the growth of police forces, the decline of the crack trade and the expansion of prisons have all contributed to the reduction in crime, Donohue and Levitt claim that none of these provide a satisfactory explanation for the abrupt drop. Many of these trends, they said, have been ongoing for 20 years. Abortion, they insist, is the primary reason for the 30-percent drop in the murder rate between 1991 and 1997, and for the 15-percent decline in property crime and 20-percent decrease in violent crime during that period. The economic benefit, said the authors, could total as much as $30 billion annually.
Drawing from research both here and in Europe, the study found that while reducing births in general would have had a temporary effect on the crime rate simply by limiting the number of males born, it was the reduction in the number of children born to women most at risk for having offspring likely to engage in crime when they reach young adulthood that so substantially affected the nations crime rate.
Children born to teenagers, unmarried women and African Americans tend to be at higher risk for committing crimes, according to the study. These women are also the most likely to seek abortions. Abortion, it said, may reduce subsequent criminality through selection effect. Studies cited in the research from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe also found that children born to mothers denied abortions are also more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Though these women overwhelmingly keep their children rather than give them up for adoption, they tend to be less nurturing, said the authors.
Naturally, the thesis stirred up a hornets nest of controversy. Some leading criminal justice scholars, such as Dr. Lawrence W. Sherman from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said that while the authors discerned an effect, they failed to take the broader picture into account.
I think theyve gone too far in claiming that it can account for half of the decline, said Blumstein, when there are a multitude of effects going on that are much more proximate to the situation.
Sherman believed the authors had not taken into account other societal upheavals taking place during the early 1970s, such as in the areas of welfare policy and policing. Until you examine hundreds of hypotheses at once, you really dont come up with that much confidence even if you have a strong correlation that this is causation, he said.
In the abortion-rights arena, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates were outraged by the study. Even if the authors theory is correct, said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, the question ultimately becomes so what? On the other side of the fence, Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, called the study so fraught with stupidity that he hardly knew where to begin refuting it.
Whatever the cause, crime fell to record lows in 1998, according to the FBIs Uniform Crime Reports. Preliminary figures released in June found both violent and property crimes down by 7 percent the largest annual decrease since 1992. And with some 566 murders, rapes, robberies and assaults recorded per 100,000 residents, the overall crime rate in 1998 was the lowest it has been since 1985. The murder rate and robbery rate each dropped to levels not seen since the late 1960s.
Regionally, some 38 percent of all reported violent crimes occurred in the South, as did 44 percent of murders. The smallest percentage of violent crimes occurred in the Northeast - 17 percent. Twenty-three percent were reported in the West, and 20 percent in the Midwest. Still, each regions posted declines in 1998 compared to the previous year.
In one Southern city, Memphis, Tenn., reported crime fell by 15 percent in 1998. Murders slid from 138 in 1997 to 115; rapes, which had peaked at 968 in 1997, fell to 722 reported cases last year; and aggravated assaults fell from 5,520 in 1997 to 4,048 in 1998. Deputy Chief Walter Crews told The Memphis Commercial Appeal: Our hope is that the perception of the public will follow that people will feel safer because, in reality, they are safer.
In Omaha, meanwhile, reported crime rose slightly, by 3.8 percent, which police attributed to a higher percentage of crime being reported. I think the domestic violence might be a significant factor, said Police Department spokesman Dan Cisar. Its reported and prosecuted much more now. The city also had a record number of 78 bank robberies in 1998 a trend that did not continue in 1999.
Perhaps the safety region in the country, however, is northern New England. According to the Justiceworks project, a consortium of criminal justice professionals and academics from Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, the number of homicides, rapes, robberies and assault in the regions is less than one-fifth the national rate. Using figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Justice Department, the group found that in 1997, New Hampshire had 113 violent crimes per 100,000 residents; Vermont 120; and Maine 121. The rate of property crimes is also lower in those states, according to Justiceworks roughly 30 to 40 percent less than the U.S. average of was 4,312 such crimes per 100,000 residents.
Broadening the picture presented by the UCR last year was another study, released in June by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which looked at the degree of satisfaction black and white residents felt towards their police forces.
The study, said to be the first in 20 years to gather national data on victimization and community policing at the city level, examined community relations at 12 sites: Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Los Angeles; Madison, Wis.; San Diego; New York; Savannah, Ga.; Spokane, Wash.; Springfield, Mass.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Washington, D.C.
In those cities, the crime victimization rates were uniformly higher than the national average in 1997. While residents of the 12 cities generally reported being well served by their police departments, there was disparity between the level of satisfaction experienced by blacks as compared with whites. Overall, more whites reported being satisfied with their police than did blacks or Asians. Twenty-four percent of African Americans said they were unhappy with police, as compared with just 10 percent of whites.
The study found the largest disparity between the races in Knoxville, Tenn., where 91 percent of whites said they were satisfied, but just 63 percent of blacks did. Police Chief Phil Keith attributed the gap to a number of police-involved shootings around the time the survey was done. To address community concerns over the deaths, he said, the department installed video cameras in patrol cars and developed a strategic plan that included a citizen review group, the Police Advisory Review Committee (PARC). We just bridged a gap that existed, said Keith.
Madison, Wis., residents showed the greatest level of satisfaction by far of any city cited in the study. An astonishing 97 percent of those queried, both black and white, reported being happy with their local police. Even those who had been victims of crime, a category which the study found to be often less satisfied with police in each of the other cities, gave the Madison department a 92-percent approval rating.
People here really want to do a good job, said Police Chief Richard Williams of his troops, and they go to extraordinary means to do that.