Much has been written about the decline in crime in the United States over the past twenty years. The violent crime rate in 1980 was almost five times 1960s’ rate and it remained depressingly high for a decade. But in the early 1990s, crime began its decline and rates of violence dropped by a third by 2000. The consensus among researchers was that big macro trends that effected every city — mainly mass incarceration and the end of the crack epidemic — were responsible.
In 2007, crime rates fell again and by 2011, violent crime was down another 20 percent. But this second crime decline was different and only some cities experienced large reductions in violence. In New York City homicides declined more than 15 percent in five years while homicide in Chicago increased more than 10 percent. Chicago’s homicide rate is now about triple NYC’s.
Old explanations don’t hold up today; New York has steadily reduced its prison population, and crack use in both New York and Chicago is far below peak rates in the 90s. This suggests that this second crime decline is not due to big macro trends but instead is about the nature of communities within cities.
So, why hasn’t Chicago replicated New York’s success? I believe the answer lies in economic segregation. Chicago is the most racially segregated big city in America, and among the most economically segregated. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has written extensively about cumulative disadvantage, which is the idea that all sorts of health and economic problems tend to cluster in places that are segregated by race. Structural features of those places — poverty, density, isolation — put them at great risk of higher rates of crime and violence. Reducing those risks leads to safer cities.
Crime policy has long been primarily about security and control of these segregated places. But the United States has never been able to arrest its way out of its crime problem. A much better strategy is to unleash market forces through tax credits enticing businesses to move into non-traditional business districts, taxing blighted properties at draconian rates, and changing zoning laws to promote gentrification (but encourage poorer residents to stay). In short, our policy should be to actively juxtapose prosperity with poverty to vaccinate the crime-infected places and stop the epidemic. In the short-term, this strategy will cost a lot in dollars and political capital, but in the long-term, it is the most promising means of reducing violence and de-segregating neighborhoods.
John Roman is a Senior Fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he focuses on evaluations of innovative crime-control policies and justice programs. He is the coeditor of Juvenile Drug Courts and Teen Substance Abuse and Cost-Benefit Analysis and Crime Control, and serves as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an affiliated professor at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @johnkroman.