How socioeconomic factors affect crime rates | Interview with Dr. Richard Rosenfeld

How socioeconomic factors affect crime rates | Interview with Dr. Richard Rosenfeld

We met with Dr. Richard Rosenfeld to discuss smarter policing, dropping crime rates, socioeconomic problems, and much more. Enjoy!

Influential criminologist Dr. Richard B. Rosenfeld offers reasons for dropping crime rates such as financial considerations and changes in incarceration rates, especially with regard to the Biden 1994 crime bill. He looks more deeply into imprisonment as a deterrent, smarter policing, “stop & frisk,” “broken windows” policing, “Defund the Police,” and the socioeconomic problems that contribute to crime. Founder’s Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and a fellow of the American Society of Criminology, Dr. Rosenfeld talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

But even back now, a decade or so ago, more and more states began easing off on policies that were ratcheting up their imprisonment rates, and many states have seen very significant declines in imprisonment with no consequent increases, by the way, in crime rates.” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld

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Interview with Criminologist
Dr. Richard Rosenfeld

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:28The early ’90s

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at and Wake Forest University. And today we have a special guest, Professor Richard Rosenfeld, who is a criminologist.

So, Professor Rosenfeld, I was just wondering, as a criminologist, when you look back at some of the different periods of time that we’ve had in the country, let’s say Bill Clinton’s presidency. We saw a lot of drop in crime back then, what was it due to?

Richard Rosenfeld: That remains a source and in some quarters, a sore point of debate. My own view, however, and my own research suggests that from the early ’90s with fits and starts through close to the present, we saw a major kind of historic drop in crime, and it was due primarily to changing economic conditions.

What we saw during the ’90s was a period of major economic growth. At that point, it was... We saw the largest growth in the economy, in the peacetime economy, and so what was happening, we saw more people back at work, we saw consumer confidence increase, and in my own research, consumer confidence is a robust predictor of crime rates, both interestingly not property crime rates, as one might think, but also violent crime rates.

And we saw the beginning of a period of comparatively low inflation rates, and inflation rates have stayed down from the early ’90s all the way to the present. In fact, now they’re so low that the Federal Reserve would like to bump them up just a bit, not too high. The Federal Reserve would like to see an inflation rate of about 2%, meaning that prices go up 2% on average each year, and we’ve been running below 2 for the last few years.

In any event, we saw inflation drop during the ’90s, after the major periods of so-called stagflation we saw in the ’70s and ’80s. You may recall waiting in gas lines during that period. And inflation rates have stayed low, consumer confidence has gone up and down, it certainly went down during the major recession of 2008-2009, but interestingly enough, inflation actually hit historic low points, and that tended to place a check on the rise in crime, so we did not see a rise in either violent or property crime during the Great Recession.

In the long run, however, imprisonment is not as important a contributor to reduced crime as economic conditions are.” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld

We have seen recently a rise in violent crime, and we can talk about that if you like, but generally speaking, in my research, economic conditions kind of loom large as the sources of the crime drop. But I should add this, during the period of the ’90s, we continued to see rising rates of imprisonment in the United States and, at least in the short run, the increase in imprisonment did contribute to a decrease in crime, as one might expect, when people are remanded to prison. That’s not a random sample of the population, that’s people who had been committing relatively serious crimes by and large, and the more of them in prison, other things equal, one might expect crime rates to come down, that’s the short run effect. In the long run, however, imprisonment is not as important a contributor to reduced crime as economic conditions are.

So I don’t want to suggest that we can imprison our way out of high crime rates, but I do think it’s important to point out that during the ’90s, in particular, increases in imprisonment were associated with small and relatively short run decreases in crime.

05:141994 crime bill

Jed: Was it worth it? And didn’t Hillary Clinton get a lot of negative press about how she was involved in some of the increased imprisonment rates, or her husband’s increase in imprisonment rates during the ’90s? Didn’t that come out...

Richard: Yeah, yeah, it did.

Jed: Can you remind us about that, because for some of us it’s a little ways in the past. What was she in trouble for?

Richard: She was in trouble for the Clinton administration sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill, and the crime bill has been tagged as a significant contributor to increased imprisonment in the United States.

In fact, that’s not the case. There may be many things not to like about the crime bill, but in fact, almost immediately after the crime bill was passed, what we began to see were reductions in crime, but we also began to see a leveling-off in imprisonment rates, and in fact, what the crime bill did was in reflect changes already going on at the state level that were increasing imprisonment, and not long after the crime bill was passed, we began to see a flattening out in imprisonment rates, and so the crime bill actually contributed very little to a rise in improvement.

There are other parts of the crime bill that some folks might object to, the crime bill instituted a three strikes federal law, and even there, it’s arguable how much of a difference that made. So I think Hillary Clinton, or for that matter, Joe Biden , have been unfairly tagged with the label of persons who were responsible for an increase in imprisonment. There were many, many other forces that were primarily at the state level that were driving up imprisonment rates.

Jed: So very interesting that you say it was a bit unfair to tag them with some kind of trouble that that caused, and wouldn’t you say that the trouble that Hillary experienced and Joe Biden experienced was mainly at the Democratic primary level, because it’s... At the national election, people who are in between Republican and Democrat wouldn’t see a big difference between them, so it was on that lower level of Democratic...

Richard: Yeah, much of the criticism, most of the criticism, I think you’re right, came from the left of the Democratic party and even further left. And again, I think that criticism was somewhat misplaced, and you’re also right, it’s difficult for Republicans who have traditionally favored imprisonment as an antidote to crime, fault Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden for their alleged contributions to the increase in imprisonment. You’re right, the criticism has come primarily from the left.

Jed: Okay, that’s fascinating.

Now, in terms of the leveling-off that happened even before the federal crime bill was signed, is it just because the state prisons were getting too full, because they were starting to incarcerate more people or what was going on?

Richard: In part. We did see increases in imprisonment that post-date the crime bill. They tended to get smaller and smaller. And by the early part of the current century, we saw a flattening in imprisonment, and over the last several years, we’ve actually seen a decline in overall levels of imprisonment at the state level, which is where most imprisonment occurs. So I lost the train of thought on that particular question.

Jed: I was just more asking like, okay, so you said that the crime bill that Hillary Clinton is being tagged with actually didn’t produce more incarcerations, and you said it was because that was already happening earlier. I was thinking, well, maybe it’s just ’cause those prisons got filled and they didn’t have money to build new prisons, so it was just going to naturally stop...

Richard: In part, in part. But when we really began to see imprisonment levels begin to level off is when the states began instituting prison reforms of one kind or another, and we’ve seen that most recently with so-called COVID releases from prison and, for that matter, local jails. But even back, now, a decade or so ago, more and more states began easing off on policies that were ratcheting up their imprisonment rates. And many states have seen very significant declines in imprisonment with no consequent increases, by the way, in crime rates.

New York, the state of New York comes to mind, New Jersey comes to mind, the state of Illinois, these are all states and which imprisonment rates have been purposefully flattened or reduced, and in none of those cases have we seen significant crime increases, all of which is to say that imprisonment may play a role in crime reduction, but other factors loom much larger.

10:44Increased incarceration rates

Jed: Fascinating.

Now, would you say that the increased incarceration rates were just because people were getting sick and tired of all the crime in the ’70s and ’80s, and it took about that long for them to say we must throw more people in jail, or what was going on?

Richard: You know, that’s one way of putting it. I think, by and large, it’s pretty accurate. Yes, the crime problem, and at the time, what was defined as the drug problem were at the top of the public’s list of concerns about national level issues. And crime by certainly late ’70s into the ’80s, which had traditionally been a local issue, became a national issue and became a point of contention in presidential debates, presidential primaries and elections. And so, yes, there was... State legislatures were in many ways responding to public concern and much public pressure to "do something about crime."

…no arrest means no prosecution means no imprisonment.” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld

Now, doing something about crime didn’t necessarily mean locking more people up for longer periods than they had been locked up in the past; doing something about crime could mean many things. It could mean engaging in smarter policing, policing that tends to prevent crime, therefore people are not arrested at the rates they might be, and no arrest means no prosecution means no imprisonment.

And doing something about crime can also mean doing something about the underlying conditions that give rise to high levels of both property and violent crime. Those underlying conditions include high levels of joblessness, inadequate education, inadequate income, and in my own view, the nation has not done enough to remedy those underlying causes.

But even without a full court press on the underlying causes, there are ways of limiting crime rates, and smarter policing is an important one. And that’s something we can talk more about if you like, but...

13:10Stop and frisk and broken window policy

Jed: I would like to. I specifically want to know about the stop and frisk and the broken window policy in New York City, and the person, Michael Bloomberg , this is all very fascinating to us. So tell us more about that.

Richard: Well, New York City engaged in an absolutely mammoth stop and frisk program. And by stop and frisk, what we mean is that police officers would stop people on the street and ask them questions about what they were doing, where they were going, trying to figure out whether they might be engaged in or about to be engaged in crime. It was also an effort to get a look at folks to see who might be carrying a firearm and to take firearms, illegally possessed firearms, off the street.

Well, the City of New York engaged in hundreds of thousands of these stops through the beginning years of the current century, and New York at the same time was experiencing a crime decline, so politicians like Rudy Giuliani and the Mike Bloomberg, police commissioners, put two and two together from their point of view and thought, well, the stop and frisk program is probably contributing to crime reduction.

I’ve done research and others have done research showing that the stop and frisk program contributed, it turns out, very little to New York’s crime reduction. And then a federal court stepped in about a decade ago now and declared that New York’s version of stop and frisk was unconstitutional and that, plus other pressures, led New York City to greatly reduce the number of stops and frisks it was carrying out, and crime rates did not increase, crime rates continue to go down in New York.

So stop and frisk is a strategy that I would not include as part of the portfolio of smart policing strategies. Some stops, of course, are necessary. And your viewers should keep in mind that the police are not permitted to stop and frisk people or do a more thorough search at will, they have to have reasonable suspicion that the individual they’re stopping is engaged in crime or about to engage in crime.

And in fact, it turns out that the great majority of stops in the City of New York and elsewhere where the program has been, in a sense, unleashed at that kind of scale, they tend to turn up very few instances in which a firearm is discovered, illegal drugs are discovered, or the person otherwise is engaged in unlawful activity. The vast majority of stops end in no arrest, no suspicion, or no suspicion of wrong-doing that actually translated into an action taken by the police other than making the stop and even conducting a frisk or a search. So it’s using a club to accomplish objectives that smart policing does by using a scalpel. And let me talk a bit about the scalpel and what it involves.

Jed: Okay, and please do mention this whole broken window thing that we’ve heard about.

Richard: Sure, sure. Broken windows, so-called, was a strategy that many police departments had toyed with over time. It received national prominence in New York City during the Giuliani administration, and under the leadership of then Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. And Bratton’s logic went like this, it was based on criminological insights.

The idea was this, look, think of your own neighborhood, if there are a lot of broken windows, cars are parked up on the lawn or on the street and left in disrepair for a long time, that sends a signal, and the signal to people who might be up to no good is, hey, nobody’s looking in this place, they’re not even repairing the windows, this is a good place to commit more serious crime, people are not looking, maybe even the cops aren’t looking or caring.

So broken windows meant repair the broken windows, keep minor disorder, minor criminal activity at the bare minimum so that you don’t send the message that this might be a place that is ripe for more serious misdeeds. It’s certainly not implausible. The problem is the evidence for it is and was relatively thin. It’s a plausible argument, and as New York began engaging in order and maintenance policing, which was how they were referring to broken windows strategies, by stopping lots of people and really bearing down on very minor stuff, New York City began experiencing a decline in serious crime.

I did research, others have done research, however, showing that the order and maintenance strategies didn’t contribute that much to the decline. New York City’s decline in crime is certainly worthy of examination, but New York City was not the only city, as we discussed earlier, that was experiencing significant crime declines beginning in the early ’90s and continuing in fits and starts through the present. So that’s broken windows. It’s not an implausible crime reduction strategy. I would recommend repairing broken windows in the neighborhood and keep the neighborhood up, as we say, so as not to send signals that the community could be inviting more serious crime, but as an overall or a major crime reduction strategy, the evidence simply doesn’t support it.

20:22The scalpel and defunding the police

Jed: Well, thanks for explaining that. Now, in our last little bit of time, do you have a few other scalpel-like pieces of advice? Go ahead and share those.

Richard: Yeah, just as broken windows policing became kind of part of widespread parlance back in the late ’90s and through the beginning years of the current century, so has this term "hot spot policing," and hot spot policing is a scalpel.

A hotspot is an area of a community, an area of a city, relatively small, can only be perhaps a few square blocks, where crime is heavily concentrated or where it has recently spiked, and these are small areas, that’s the scalpel, and then the police are then sent to those areas in elevated numbers, and what the research shows is by their presence alone in larger numbers, they’re able to quell the crime increase or reduce the concentration without, interestingly enough, spreading crime to other areas where the police are not present in such large numbers.

And it’s not simply by their presence, though that does make a contribution, it’s also a question of what they’re doing while they’re there. And if they’re... The research shows if they’re while they’re there paying attention to people they’ve identified through arrest records and other means as contributing to crime in the area, if they’re paying attention to them, calling on them, for example, asking them questions, without indication of a crime that’s about to occur, that too seemed to contribute to prevent crime, and by preventing crime, arrests aren’t made because there’s no need, and if the arrests aren’t made prosecution doesn’t occur, and we don’t get this terrible cycle of crime, arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, mass incarceration. That’s the scalpel.

It’s not a cure-all. We still need to attend to those underlying conditions I mentioned earlier that keep crime higher than it ought to be over the long term, but in the meantime, smarter scalpel-like policing can help.

Jed: And as a final question, which is a huge issue... Probably you don’t have time to talk about it very much, but what do you think about the defund police movement and the way that this is being played out on both sides of the presidential debate?

We do, in my view, need to hold police officers more accountable for police misconduct, we do need policing to become more transparent.” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld

Richard: Right. Defund the police, as I think many advocates of police reform, and I would include myself, is an unfortunate characterization. But there are of course, elements in the population that want to see police budgets greatly reduced and those funds used for other purposes that might contribute to crime reduction and better relations between the police and the community. The problem with the term defund the police is it sort of puts the cart before the horse, there are needs to engage in very serious reform of policing. We do, in my view, need to hold police officers more accountable for police misconduct, we do need policing to become more transparent. How much that will cost depends on trying out various reform strategies, seeing if they work, toning up the bill and then deciding whether better policing will indeed cost less. It could, or it might even cost more, so yes, policing reform is needed. Whether that will result in a reduction of police budgets remains to be determined.

24:37Sign off

Jed: Alright, well, thank you so much, Professor Rosenfeld. It was truly fascinating for me to hear all this stuff that I’ve really never thought much about before, so I really appreciate you taking the time.

Richard: Well, thanks for inviting me, I’ve enjoyed it.