Outside editorial: America the safer

Something is going right in fight against violent crime

Posted: Sunday, January 03, 2010

As you have no doubt heard, the first 10 years of the 21st century were dreadful - a lost decade of terrorism, war and economic stagnation. There is some truth to that portrayal. But in one significant respect, the awful Aughties were practically a golden age. We refer to the continued progress the United States is making against homicide and other violent crime.

According to some conventional wisdom, economic trouble breeds lawlessness. Yet in the first half of 2009, as unemployment skyrocketed, reported murders, forcible rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults decreased by 4.4 percent compared with the first half of 2008, according to the FBI. The decline in homicide was especially striking: down 29.8 percent in Los Angeles, 14 percent in Atlanta, 10 percent in Boston. With 461 murders through Dec. 27, New York was on track for the lowest number since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963 - when the Big Apple was a slightly smaller town.

In the Washington area, Virginia's homicide rate hit 4.7 per 100,000 in 2008, down from 5.7 at the beginning of the decade; Maryland's 2008 murder rate was higher, 8.8 per 100,000, but still lower than it had been in 2002. At 31.4 per 100,000, Washington's 2008 murder rate was shamefully high but lower than it was at the beginning of the decade. And the 2009 body count, 140, was a 45-year-low and down 25 percent from 2008.

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence - then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this "Great Crime Decline" could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

Obviously, one murder is one murder too many. U.S. rates of violent crime remain above those of other industrial democracies. And certain places, including Baltimore, where murder rose 9.5 percent in the first half of 2009, have progressed less dramatically than others. Still, this substantial and sustained reduction in murder, once thought impossible, ranks as a major national achievement.

If only we knew exactly why and how it has occurred. An accident of demography? The passing of the crack cocaine epidemic? We're inclined to credit policies that put more brave and dedicated cops on the street, with better technology and smarter tactics. Still New York City continued to rack up lower homicide rates in the past decade even as its police force shrank by 6,000. New York officials say that city's tougher gun laws have helped; yet Houston also recorded a drop in homicide in the first half of 2009 despite loose gun laws.

Tougher sentencing probably took some career criminals off the streets - though there's little evidence that the death penalty deters murder. No doubt new lifesaving medical techniques turned potential homicides into lesser offenses - yet aggravated assault is down, too.

Government at all levels spends much time and money figuring out what's going wrong in our society and how to fix it. Perhaps we need a bigger effort to determine what's been going right in the fight against violent crime - and to spread that knowledge to every jurisdiction in the country.

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