Wishful Thinking

A Sydney Morning Herald editorial yesterday (scroll down, it’s the 2nd editorial) credited the fall in crime in NSW over recent years to lower unemployment. It’d be lovely if this were true, but my read of the evidence is that while lower unemployment tends to bring down property crime a smidgin, it doesn’t really affect violent crime. For a fuller account of this, see a terrific paper by Steve Levitt, or my summary of it in the Australian earlier this year. My guess is that more cops, more jails*, and the legalisation of abortion in the 1970s are the main factors explaining the crime drop over recent years.

Two final points. First, while the evidence convinces me that putting more people behind bars helped cut crime, jails also have a painful social cost in scarring their inmates. I suspect we’re at the point where any reduction in crime would be outweighed by the societal costs of more long-term unemployment and general brutalisation of a group of people who have already been pretty hard done by. Second, there are damn good reasons for a reinvigorated push for full employment. Cutting crime just doesn’t happen to be one of them.

* Some people may well come back with arguments on why higher incarceration rates might raise crime rates. I agree that such stories are credible – the facts just point the opposite direction. Reading Levitt finally convinced me that the belief I’d held since studying criminology at Sydney University in 1996 – that higher incarceration rates led to more crime – was utterly at odds with the evidence.

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