For all the grim news about the economy and jobs over the last few years, one indicator of the quality of life in the United States has stubbornly continued to improve. The latest Federal Bureau of Investigation data suggests crime rates went on falling through the first half of 2011, recession be damned. In 1991, the overall national violent crime rate reported by the FBI was 758 cases per 100,000 inhabitants; by 2010, that had dropped to 404 per 100,000. The murder and "nonnegligent homicide" rate dropped by more than half over the same period. You wouldn't know it from watching television -- beyond the continuing conviction that "if it bleeds it leads" on local news, the number of violent acts on prime-time TV shows climbs ever-upward. But that rise in fake violence may have played some role in the real-life trend heading squarely the other way.
The United States isn't alone in a trend towards people just getting along better -- it's a global phenomenon. In 2001, homicide killed more than twice the number of people worldwide who died in wars (an estimated 557,000 people versus total war deaths of around 208,000). But just as in the United States, violent crime rates have been falling across a large part of the planet. The data is patchy, but in 2002, about 332,000 homicides from 94 countries around the globe were reported to the United Nations. By 2008, that had dropped to 289,000. And between those years, the homicide rate fell in 68 reporting countries and increased in only 26.
Look at the really long-term picture and violent crime rates are way down. Institute of Criminology professor Manuel Eisner reaches all the way back to the 13th century to report that typical homicide rates in Europe dropped from about 32 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages down to 1.4 per 100,000 in the 20th century. (Sadly, of course, for all of their decline, U.S. rates are still more than three times that -- a rate above what Eisner suggests is the Western average for the 1700s.)
The global picture of the last few years, along with the historical picture covering the West over the last 800 years, both suggest that there isn't just a constant proportion of bad people out there who will commit a crime unless you lock them up before they do it. And there's a lot more evidence that whatever is behind declining violence it isn't the number behind bars -- or, indeed, the length of sentencing or the number of cops on the street.
It is true that a Pew Center report suggests that as U.S. crime rates were declining, the national prison population increased from 585,000 to 1.6 million between 1987 and 2007. But the rest of the world hasn't followed the United States down the path towards mass incarceration, and yet has still seen declining violence. The U.N. crime trends survey suggests that homicides fell in Britain by 29 percent between 2003 and 2008 alone, for example. And yet the incarceration rate in Britain was one-fifth as high as the United States, according to the Pew report. Again, within the United States, one of the places with the most dramatic drops in violent crime is New York City -- the homicide rate is 80 percent down from 1990. But while the rest of the country was locking up ever more people, New York City's incarceration rate fell by 28 percent over the last two decades.