Law and Criminal Justice Committee Session Summary:  The Economy and Crime

Posted August 12, 2010

The Law and Criminal Justice Committee’s program at the recent NCSL Legislative Summit in Louisville, included a presentation on crime and the economy by Richard Rosenfeld, curator’s professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Department of Criminology. Rosenfeld is the 2010 president of the American Society of Criminology and is a fellow with the American Society of Criminology. His research interests include the social sources of violent crime, crime statistics and crime control policy. 

Rosenfeld said the current economic recession is a break from the past in that crime rates generally have not seen across-the-board increases.  Information related to drug markets suggests that drug activity has not increased during the current recession, he said.   While it is unknown how police force reductions have affected crime rates, it is likely that now-diminishing stimulus funds for justice programs have helped state and local jurisdictions maintain operations. 

Rosenfeld explained how research explores the relationship between the economy and crime and uses indicators like gross domestic product per capita and, more subjectively, consumer sentiment. He said that while perception of a poor economy is seen to correlate with robbery rates, those rates also rise and fall irrespective to the economy and consumer pessimism. He said the historic crime drops in the 1990s are attributed mostly to demographics – the baby boomers aging out of the crime-prone years. Rapidly increasing incapacitation rates also likely contributed in the short-run to crime drops, but with other longer-term consequences, he said.

He described mechanisms that link property crimes to economic conditions. Some are opportunistic, Rosenfeld said, including things like unemployed people being at home and creating fewer opportunities for daytime home burglaries.  On the other hand, a down economy usually improves markets for illegal goods, perhaps provoking related crimes in places other than the low-income neighborhoods where those markets normally thrive.  As is the case with drug trafficking, illegal markets often include the potential for disputes that are often settled with violence, he said.

Rosenfeld recommended to lawmakers that policy development use crime data, but cautioned against data that are untimely and inadequate in providing for comparative assessments.   State-level crime statistical units are the best source for timely information on a state’s crime rates, according to Rosenfeld, while the state-to-state comparative data provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports are valuable but not timely enough.  He also cautioned that as states develop and debate policy, “information voids” often are filled by advocacy groups. Rosenfeld said that building strong research and analytical capabilities at the state level is important to informed policies and other changes are needed at the federal level to provide more timely comparative data for research-informed decision making.