Crime rates decline again – but that trend might not last

Lost among the news about last week’s elections and the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy was a positive report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For the fifth consecutive year, violent crime in America has declined. Property crimes also continued their downward trend for the ninth year in a row.

Both types of crime peaked in 1991 and then began a steady, consistent decline.

The FBI’s annual crime statistics for 2011 show similar trends for Washington, and Thurston County in particular.

Violent crime in Thurston County went down 12.2 percent from 2010, including a 128 percent decline in forcible rape, a trend repeated nationally. The number of property crimes dropped by 7.1 percent. Property crimes in the South Sound outnumber violent crimes by 10-to-1, a ratio consistent with the state’s other most populated counties.

The South Sound’s major urban areas showed varied but similar results.

The FBI reported a 16 percent decline of violent crime in Olympia, along with a 23 percent drop in property crimes. Tumwater recorded reductions in both categories, 12 percent down in violent crimes, just over 10 percent in property crimes.

The City of Lacey, however, had a 17 percent increase in violent crimes, but an 11 percent drop in property crimes. Shelton’s violent crimes remained flat to 2010, and the city saw property crimes go down by nearly 10 percent.

The numbers were much smaller in Yelm, but violent crimes increased there by seven, from 10 to 17, or about a 70 percent jump. Property crimes rose by 21 percent.

It should be noted the FBI data includes only reported crimes. The agency estimates more than half of some crimes committed – rape, in particular – never get reported to law enforcement. Of the reported rapes, for example, crime data shows that arrests get made in 12 percent of the reported cases and only 9 percent are ever prosecuted.

Criminal activity has historically increased during difficult economic periods, making the FBI’s crime data during the Great Recession somewhat mysterious. Pundits have alternately credited modern policing tactics and tough sentencing standards in the courts.

Sociologists have also pointed to an aging population dominated by baby boomers over 50 – the shrinking 15- to 25-year-old age group is more likely to commit a crime – and video games.

Video games? Some criminologists believe that video games, no matter how violent, keep young people in their homes, and off the streets where they could potentially commit real crimes.

Most experts, however, applaud the emergence of social programs aimed at young people as a major factor in plummeting crime rates over the past 20 years.

Organizations such as Community Youth Services in Olympia, for example, are addressing the needs of at-risk youth and partnering with South Sound law enforcement agencies to keep kids engaged. Community outreach programs give young people an outlet for their pent-up energies and channel them away from criminal activity.

Chopping public funding to these effective youth-directed nonprofits could eventually undercut their positive benefits.

Budgetary restrictions also threaten another factor in falling crime rates. Courts have toughened up sentencing, incarcerating more people in larger prisons. Taking so many criminals off the streets has resulted in fewer crimes.

But budget deficits at the city, county and state levels in Washington have led to prison closures and early-release programs. Over time, that could a negative effect on crime rates.

Maintaining crimes rates at current levels won’t be easy going forward. It costs money, forcing cities such as Olympia to ask for tax increases to retain policing personnel levels.

And the Legislature must consider the public cost of rising crime when it tries to balance another deficit budget in January. Social programs always look like easy targets, but that comes with a long-term cost.