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Levitt Understanding Why Crime fell in 1990

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crime fell sharply in the United States in the 1990s, in all categories of
crime and all parts of the nation. Homicide rates plunged 43 percent from
the peak in 1991 to 2001, reaching the lowest levels in 35 years. The
Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) violent and property crime indexes fell 34
and 29 percent, respectively, over that same period. These declines occurred
essentially without warning: leading experts were predicting an explosion in crime
in the early and mid-1990s, precisely the point when crime rates began to plunge.
Although experts failed to anticipate the decline, there has been no shortage
of hypotheses to explain the drop in crime after the fact. Table 1 presents a tally of
a Lexis-Nexis search of the most frequently cited reasons for the crime decline in
articles in major newspapers over the period 1991–2001. The single most frequent
explanation given is the innovative policing strategies put into place. The crime
decline is also frequently attributed to increased imprisonment, changes in the
market for crack cocaine, the aging of the population, tougher gun control laws,
the strong economy and increases in the number of police.
In this paper, I attempt to sort out why crime declined in the 1990s. I begin
with a review of the facts. I then analyze the leading explanations for why crime fell,
looking at possible determinants that changed in some substantial way in the 1990s.
Most of the supposed explanations listed in Table 1 actually played little direct role
in the crime decline, including the strong economy of the 1990s, changing demographics,
better policing strategies, gun control laws, concealed weapons laws and
increased use of the death penalty. Four factors, however, can account for virtually
y Steven D. Levitt is the Alvin H. Baum Professor of Economics, University of Chicago, and
Research Fellow, American Bar Foundation, both in Chicago, Illinois. This article was written
while the author was a fellow during the 2002–2003 academic year at Center for Advanced
Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California.
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