The Wilson Quarterly

From the early 1990s to 2005, crime rates in America plunged by a third. But the overall national trend obscures other important developments, including the much bigger strides that have been made in reducing the victimization of minority ­groups.

In a study of 278 cities, New York University public policy professors Ingrid Gould Ellen and Katherine O’Regan describe drastic changes in the period between 1992 and 2005. Property crime decreased by 38 percent and violent crime by nearly half. In 2005, one-quarter of cities were safer than their surrounding suburbs had been in ­1992.

But the benefits were not universal. Northeastern cities with large minority and immigrant populations and high rates of poverty experienced the greatest drop. These cities tended to have higher crime rates to begin with. In contrast, the 70 cities where crime decreased the least—or even, in a few cases, increased—were on average three-quarters white, had far fewer immigrants, and were mostly in the South, West, and Midwest. Overall, the trends indicate a regional ­convergence.

Another convergence emerged when Ellen and O’Regan trained their sights on the dynamics within cities. Each population group (white, black, Hispanic, immigrant, poor, and not poor) experienced far less crime in 2005 than it had in 1992. Sectors of the population that saw the most crime in 1992 were exposed to less in 2005 than those that were safest 20 years earlier. But again, the trends did not affect all groups equally: The incidence of crime fell more sharply among minorities than whites, narrowing the gap between them.

The sole exception to this general convergence was found in an expanding gap between foreigners and ­native-­born residents. In 1992, they had nearly the same level of “crime exposure.” By 2000, immi­grants experienced noticeably less crime than the average U.S.-born city resident. In fact, at the start of the millennium, the jurisdiction of residence of the average American Hispanic ­city ­dweller was safer than that of the average white city dweller.

The authors venture no explanations for the trends they describe. Among those commonly advanced are changes in the number of young men in the population, improved policing methods, and the ebb and flow of illicit drugs such as crack and methamphetamine and the criminal activities that accompany them.

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The Source: "Crime and U.S. Cities: Recent Patterns and Implications" by Ingrid Gould Ellen and Katherine O'Regan, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 2009.  

Photo courtesy of Flickr/macwagen

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