Crime, Education and the Future of Cities

I almost always remark that when I started in the planning profession some 25 years ago, I could hardly envision that our nation’s cities would be where they are today.  I wanted to see successful revitalization, and I thought a few cities would be able to break through, but reaching the point we are today was nearly unfathomable.

There are many reasons for this, of course, but one of the major ones was the dramatic decrease in crime nationwide, but particularly in large cities, over that time.  Less crime enabled new city residents to move in, get comfortable and establish a foundation for growth in cities.  However, few people, from criminal justice and criminology experts to the general public, can really explain how crime dropped the way it did.

I think it’s important that we understand this as best we can, because I believe cities are on the cusp of another inexplicable social improvement — dramatically better public school systems.

An article by Inimai Chettiar in the Atlantic this week takes the decreased crime issue on, largely challenging the conventional narrative that increased incarceration led to decreased crime.  Chettiar’s claim:

“Our team of economic and criminal justice researchers spent the last 20 months testing fourteen popular theories for the crime decline. We delved deep into over 30 years of data collected from all 50 states and the 50 largest cities. The results are sharply etched: We do not know with precision what caused the crime decline, but the growth in incarceration played only a minor role, and now has a negligible impact.”

Chettiar and her team investigated several popular theories on decreasing crime.  Regarding incarceration, here’s what they found:

“It turns out that increased incarceration had a much more limited effect on crime than popularly thought. We find that this growth in incarceration was responsible for approximately 5 percent of the drop in crime in the 1990s. (This could vary from 0 to 10 percent.) Since then, however, increases in incarceration have had essentially zero effect on crime. The positive returns are gone. That means the colossal number of Americans cycling in and out of prisons and jails over the last 13 years was not responsible for any meaningful fraction of the drop in crime.”

This is something I’ve long suspected, but the public policy correlation/causation has simply prevented us from investigating it further.  Policymakers seem to be saying, “crime’s going down, even if we’re not sure why.  We’ll keep incarcerating as we have, just in case — we’re not going to be the place where decreased incarceration will lead to more crime.”

It’s also interesting to look at the other theories posed by economists, sociologists, and others about decreased crime.  Besides increased incarceration, here’s what Chettiar’s team evaluated:

  • Increased police numbers
  • Aging population
  • Income growth
  • Decreased alcohol consumption
  • Introduction of CompStat (policing technology)
  • Decreased unemployment
  • Increased consumer confidence, lower inflation (generally, a better economy in the ’90s)
  • Decreased crack use, legalized abortion, decreased lead in gasoline
  • Other factors 

In all, each factor was determined to have no more than a 10% impact on the overall decrease in violent and property crimes between 1990 and 1999, and even less impact between 2000 and 2013.  Interestingly, two factors the researchers looked at, death penalty laws and the enactment of right-to-carry laws, seem to show no evidence of impact.

Chettiar’s done some great investigative work on what’s worked to decrease crime, but some recent work by Daniel Kay Hertz might provide a better understanding of the process — and explain how similar changes in improving education might look.  Daniel (we are on a first-name basis; we know each other) was featured last year in the New Republic noting crime inequality in Chicago, detailing how crime has ebbed and flowed in the city:

“Chicago’s crime was never distributed evenly across the city, and the decline hasn’t been, either. In and around downtown, and on the North Side, neighborhoods with moderate numbers of homicides became some of the safest urban areas in the country. A million people in Chicago, the global poster child for first-world urban violence, now live in neighborhoods that together have the same homicide rate as New York City, the “safest big city in America.”

Meanwhile, much of the rest of Chicago has seen much more modest declines, or stagnation. In the case of two police districts on the South Side, the homicide problem has actually gotten worse. In the early 1990s, the most dangerous third of the city saw about six times more murders than the safest third. Over the last several years, the most dangerous third has seen between twelve and 16 times more homicides.”

Overall, crime in Chicago is down.  It’s dramatically down, even if it’s not as dramatic as it’s been in other cities like New York.  And why is that?  Because it’s up in many parts of the city.

Like I said, I envision a similar phenomenon happening within cities in the next decade or so, and the improvements will likely happen first in the same areas that have seen the most dramatic crime decreases.  Here’s how it will play out:

  • Young families that used to disembark for the suburbs once their kids reached school age will opt to stay longer in their gentrified communities.
  •  The children of said families will attend public schools, and we’ll see improved performance and test scores in some magnet schools, charter schools and select neighborhood schools.
  • Improvement will flow upward from elementary schools, to middle schools, and only later into high schools.
  • There will be a period of heightened educational inequality, as well — successful schools that will in effect bust the curve, and struggling schools still seeking to find a way.
  • The effect will slowly spread.  As one neighborhood and its school improves, a school in an adjacent neighborhood will also improve.  Unfortunately, neighborhoods that aren’t adjacent to improved neighborhoods or schools will be the last to improve.
  • Overall, however, there will be school improvement, and city policymakers will be touting their leadership for the improvement.
We’ll look back on it one day and wonder exactly how it all happened.

2 thoughts on “Crime, Education and the Future of Cities

  1. Kevin, I have seen the Freakonomics take on crime decline, and yes it is politically incorrect. The study I reference also takes abortions among low-income residents into account and acknowledge that it likely had some impact on crime decline. I tend to agree, but it is a very provocative viewpoint.


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