the odd case of the crime rate paradox

February 12, 2012

Here’s a very surprising bit of news that comes with both a positive note and an enigma. Crime rates are still falling across the world and no one seems to know exactly why or how it’s happening. Despite all the griping about today’s violent movies, video games, and plentiful, freely available pornography, replete with ever more dire warnings of porn addictions and video game-driven crime sprees by self-appointed morality crusaders, it seems that the world is really safer than ever. Oh and here’s another interesting twist. According to studies done around the world, neither harsh sentencing, long prison terms, nor executions really prevent or deter the average crime rate to any significant degree. Jails in the United States are overflowing so much so, there has been talk of virtual incarceration for some convicts instead of actual jail time, and yet, it has a higher crime rate than nations which have much, much smaller incarceration rates and abolished the death penalty. Here’s the bizarre but lucky paradox with which we’re faced. None of the things that should be driving crime upwards seem to be encouraging more criminal activity and none of the things that should deter crime seem to do the trick, and yet, crime rates are way down. So much for the gloomy predictions of amateur criminologists.

Now, none of this means that good law enforcement, a robust legal system, and jails don’t have any role here because they perform crucial jobs. However, there may be another factor at play which was introduced by very speculative social surveys. Rather than containing the violence we’re all capable of unleashing by the use of judicial implements such as jails and lethal injections, we’ve domesticated ourselves. By creating societies which emphasize working together and where violent behavior is extremely counter-productive, we slowly but surely tamed ourselves into settling disputes with courts rather than feuds and mediation rather than duels or blows in the public square. Likewise, today we can call the police when there’s a fight or a robbery rather than have to take matters into our own hands. Added up over countless incidents over many years, it may well add up to a major drop in violent crime rates because many incidents that would claim a life or end up in a violent altercation simply don’t escalate to that level. Meanwhile, of course, there are criminals and there are places where the law doesn’t reach or doesn’t want to reach which means that there will always be potential for there to have violent encounters or arguments than end up in injuries, deaths, and legal charges. We’re not turning our world into a non-violent utopia, but we’re growing and learning to avoid our violent nature.

So what about all the violent video game and porn -tube sites which supposedly flood our minds with anger, encouraging desensitization to blood and gore and subliminally priming the minds of young men for rape? It seems that the statistics disagree with the oft-repeated hyperbole about our entertainment choices. If the mix of sex and violence in the media really did prime people for aggression, how come we’re not seeing that as a flood of stabbings, robberies, thefts, and sexual assaults rising day by day? Because the would-be offenders are deterred by jail? We just saw that this isn’t the case. The only conclusion we can make form the available data is that whatever effect violent and pornographic imagery has, it doesn’t carry over into the real world on a meaningful scale. Considering the history of nearly all moral panics and their typical formulas of amateurish pseudoscience and breathless hyperbole, that’s not surprising in the least. After all, they’re based on taking a barely plausible idea which demonizes something self-selected moral crusaders happen to loath, cast it as the nefarious perverter of youth into sex-crazed, bloodthirsty fiends, then cherry picks legitimate studies to get a flimsy veneer of factual backing behind their pet cause, often throwing in their personal opinions while trying to present them as scientific facts. It seems we’re just too calm and domesticated to let something like a little simulated murder or mayhem turn us into armed criminals patrolling the streets for victims…

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  • Bruce Coulson

    In western countries, there is one known factor for the decline in the crime rate: an aging population. Bad jokes aside, the majority of violent crimes are committed by the young. Fewer young people = less crime.

    The inability of harsh punishments to deter crime has also been known for a long time. It is not the severity of the punishment, but the certainty of it, that deters people. Criminals (of all types) rationalize their actions partly on the basis that they won’t get caught; therefore, punishment (which requires being apprehended) doesn’t deter them. When caught, if they are going to be released, the criminals reason that they’ve learned not to do ‘x’ again (‘x’ being whatever got them caught the first time); not that they should stop being criminals.

    I would also keep in mind that crime statistics are subject to a lot of manipulation in countries that maintain them; crimes are routinely categorized according to what crime the government would like to either focus attention on or want people to be scared of (sometimes both). In many countries, there are no reliable statistics, and so it’s difficult to say what the ‘crime rate’ truly is. (Is piracy a crime in Somalia, for instance?)

    However, it’s an interesting idea that we are ‘taming’ ourselves into becoming more civilized.