One of the consequences of the Great Recession we’ve been in since 2008 may be the long-overdue death of the “root causes” theory of crime and criminality. In A Crime Theory Demolished Heather McDonald points out that crime rates are dropping to 50-year lows even as unemployment hits a 70-year high.
While she is right to point out that this makes a joke of “root causes” theory, she doesn’t really propose an alternative to it, other than by waving a hand in the direction of rising incarceration rates. And I don’t believe that explanation; too many of our prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders.
In fact that category alone seems to account for most of the prison population growth over the last couple of decades, which suggests that increased incarceration is suppressing other sorts of crime very little or not at all. (See the update below.)
It’s also been noted recently that the trends in crime rates make nonsense of the notion that civilian firearms cause crime — even so reliable a bellwether of bland bien-pensant liberalism as the Christian Science Monitor has remarked upon this.
Mind you, the continuing fall in crime also falsifies some of the pet theories of social conservatives. They’re prone to chunter on about “defining deviance down” and the coarsening of popular culture as though sales of Grand Theft Auto actually had something to do with rates of grand theft auto. Given that there has been no sign of pop culture reverting to the 1950s (or whatever other era they imagine to have been ideal), this too seems an unsustainable explanation.
So what is actually going on here?