Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Why has crime fallen?

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New analysis undertaken by the report's authors idntified the ageing population, changes in income and decreased alcohol consumption as factors reducing crime.A review of past research indicated that consumer confidence and inflation also seem to have contributed to crime reduction.

The Brennan Center for Justice

This post summarises a recent landmark report by the Brennan Center for Justice (which is based at New York University School of Law): What caused the crime decline?

The report investigates why crime across the United States has declined so Brennan center covermuch over the last two decades. Violent crime has fallen by 51% since 1991 and property crime by 43%.

This is a common topic for researchers and a wide range of explanations have been offered: increased incarceration; expanded police forces; an ageing population; employment rates – even legalised abortion. The Brennan researchers sensibly conclude that there is no one cause for such a widespread, dramatic change.

This report adds three new components to the debate about why crime has fallen so dramatically:

  1. A much more rigorous analysis of the effect of incarceration on crime reduction.
  2. Analysis of 14 major theories of crime reduction, including the effect of theories on each other.
  3. The first national empirical analysis of the police management technique known as CompStat

The report makes three central findings which are discussed in turn below.


Sending more people to prison doesn’t reduce crime

As most people know, the United States imprisons a much higher proportion of its population than any other democracy – the US has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners.

incarceration rate Hamilton project

The Brennan report found that incarceration has been declining as an effective crime control tactic since before 1980. Since 2000, the effect on the crime rate of imprisoning more people has been essentially zero. Incarceration has accounted for less than 1% of the decline in property crime this century and has had little effect on the drop in violent crime over the past 24 years. In fact large states including California, New York and Texas have all reduced their prison populations while crime has continued to fall.

Brennan incarceration

 CompStat does help reduce crime

The report concludes that CompStat (the data driven policing system first introduced in New York in 1994 which analysed crime patterns and directed police resources to hot spots before crimes were committed) has played an important role in bringing down crime in cities. The Brennan Centre analysed the 50 largest cities in the US and found that CompStat-style programmes were responsible for a 5 to 15% decrease in crime (an increase in the number of police officers also played an important role).


Other factors

A] number of other social, economic and environmental factors are also identified as playing a role in the crime drop. New analysis undertaken by the report’s authors idntified the ageing population, changes in income and decreased alcohol consumption as  factors reducing crime.A review of past research indicated that consumer confidence and inflation also seem to have contributed to crime reduction.



If we apply the findings of the Brennan report to the current state of criminal justice in this country, we come to two depressing conclusions.

  1. Imprisoning more people has no effect on reducing crime; yet we lock up more people for longer periods of time.
  2. Increasing the number of police does reduce crime, yet we are making the largest cuts in the numbers of police in modern history.

I’d be interested to hear your views on the most effective ways to reduce crime, please use the comments section below.



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6 Responses

  1. Fascinating and unsurprising reading. It seems that our governments suffer an ‘addiction’ to incarceration, and are vulnerable to that unfortunate human function of repeating a behaviour and expecting a different result.
    The practicality in the UK is that we’re not about to turn round the enormous ship that is the prison system easily or any time soon. TR is an agenda that is only just beginning to be implemented, and we have to work with what we have.
    However, we can learn some lessons from our US cousins, even if it may take longer to put this learning into practice.
    I’m currently working on a restorative prison concept – my thinking is that if we can’t reduce the numbers in prison, we can at least change how we respond to them whilst we have them. The idea is a minimal shift in mindset to assist in pro-social modelling and building improvements in personal responsibility and executive functioning. This idea mirrors some of the great work that’s already being done in pockets within the prison system and restorative community per se.
    I can only trust that there is recognition at a policy level that current resourcing within the prison system needs reviewing and underpinning (not to mention the police) so that we can ensure the ship is on course to an established environment in prison that promotes rehabilitation.

  2. Is crime falling, really?

    Are the police recording crime in a different way? Are they recording all crime? Selectively categorising crime for recording purposes? Turning up to crimes?

    Are the public reporting crime other than serious violent crime?

    Sending people to jail. Will the continued privatisation of the cjs process mean organisations and influential investors have a vested interest in ensuring profit from inprisonment/punishment is maintained and more individuals are sent to prison?

    Lots of Q’s!

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