James Q Wilson looks at a phenomenon that has surprised many people: crime rates have not gone up appreciably during the Little Depression. In fact, they continue to fall. Wilson sorts through a number of factors, (including a reduction in lead poisoning. give me a break), but concludes that a "change in culture" is what really lies behind this trend.
At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling—even through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression—because of a big improvement in the culture. The cultural argument may strike some as vague, but writers have relied on it in the past to explain both the Great Depression's fall in crime and the explosion of crime during the sixties. In the first period, on this view, people took self-control seriously; in the second, self-expression—at society's cost—became more prevalent. It is a plausible case.
I'll agree that American society and popular culture is much improved from the loose and tacky Sixties and Seventies when the Great Crime Wave swept the nation. Just as an example, try to find some old World Series footage from Yankee Stadium. People were storming the field, scrambling around wildly, and looking generally like an out-of-control mob. Or look at the infamous "Disco Demolition" at Comisky Park. People laugh about it now, but what you are seeing is a thuggish, depressing riot.
By contrast, when a city-wide blackout hit NYC in 2003 (I think that was to year), nobody rioted, or smashed windows, or looted stores. Everybody quietly and calmly walked across the bridges to get home, or stayed put, but otherwise behaved themselves. The contrast with the Murder City of two decades earlier was stark, albeit in a good way.
Wilson identifies a Sixties-era social dynamic of self-expression uber alles as being part of the crime wave. And, yeah, people were expressing themselves, but more important, society's guardians failed to lay down a fundamental rule: stay off my lawn. This found expression in a myriad of ways. The most obvious were the Warren Court's criminal procedure reforms, which were widely seen at the time by liberals as being part of the civil rights movement, and widely panned by "right wingers" and other normal people as giving the criminal class too many undeserved rights. Well the wingnuts were right about that one. Reading a Miranda warning to low-lifes had very little to with Rosa Parks. It only placed her and her neighbors in greater jeopardy (since most crimes, then and now, were committed in poor neighborhoods). Nixon was running as a tough on crime candidate as early as 1972. As late as 1988, Republicans could tag a Democrat as "soft on crime" and torpedo his slim chances for winning the presidency.
As important, there was an explosion of drug use at all levels of society. While narcotics have never been legal, there was a de facto decriminalization back in those days. The quintessential event of the era was Woodstock, where celebrations of LSD and marijuana were as important as the music. Much of the crime of the era was related to drug use, from selling and distributing to collateral crimes like stealing TV's to score some dope. Setting the crime part aside, drug use contributed to a breakdown in society because the drugs themselves caused their users to break down in one way over another.
Mostly, though, there was a failure of leadership, especially in urban areas. Liberals were in charge of the most crime ridden areas of the country, whether NYC, Detroit, DC, or what have you. No matter how many innocent people were victimized, they never seemed comfortable with the idea of sending the police into a crime zone to knock heads, make some arrests, and send people to prison. Instead, they preferred to lecture us about poverty and "root causes" and how legitimate fears about crime were a figment of suburbanites' racist imaginations (that's the Bowling For Columbine theory).
And, liberals still don't get it. Just this week, the liberal wing of the Supreme Court ordered California to release tens of thousands of prisoners from its "overcrowded" prisons, a back door way of eviscerating California's effective and popular 3-Strikes initiative, which is based on the crazy theory that if you lock up criminals, you will have less crime.
The liberal approach to crime prevention, then and now, has been twofold: first, give us a ton of money so we can attack the "root causes" of crime by redistributing wealth downward. Second, restrain the police so they can no longer unfairly "target" minority communities. Unsurprisingly, this did not result in any reduction in crime, but rather to a disastrous increase. It took decades to dig ourselves out, but liberals seem hellbent to throw us back down.