California's homicide rate continued to fall in 2010, reaching the lowest level since 1966, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris announced Tuesday.
Preliminary figures gathered by the California Department of Justice from the state's largest jurisdictions show the number of homicides reported in 2010 declined by 9.6% from 2009. That is the fifth year of declines in killings.
There were 1,335 homicides in 89 of the state's largest jurisdictions in 2010, according to the report, down from 1,476 in 2009.
The continuing drop reflects a trend seen in Los Angeles, where there were 293 homicides in 2010, down from 312 the year before, according to the state report.This is welcome news. The traditional liberal assumption that crime is driven by Les Miserables-like stealing of loaves of bread to feed starving families has been outmoded for some time.
But, what is going on? I've suggested a number of reasons over the years. Besides implementing James Q. Wilson's theory of incapacitating bad guys by long prison sentences (a system threatened by yesterday's Supreme Court ruling to release 33,000 crooks from California prisons), the payoff from crime has diminished relative to the risk of getting caught. The rise of cell phones that track exactly where you are at all times is particularly daunting to teenagers who are thinking about a life of crime but who also want to stay current on their social network. If you can't brag about your crimes on MySpace without creating a permanent record that can be used against you in court, maybe it makes more sense to stay home and play Grand Theft Auto than to go out and commit it.
A couple of suggestions that I don't think have drawn enough attention are:
- Lack of a new drug. Fortunately, nobody has invented a new super drug since crack in the mid 1980s. Â Crack was just an all-around disaster: a drug aimed at poor people, which made them nastier, and which generated vast amounts of money where there wasn't much of a settled cartel to keep dealers from shooting each other.
- Rick Nevin's work on lead in the environment. In 1939, Robert A. Heinlein drew up his famous "Future History" chart showing how his early sci-fi short stories fit together chronologically. The most striking prediction he made was that the 1960s and 1970s would be the Crazy Years. Lead in the environment from gasoline, paint, and industrial air pollution might have had something to do with this. (On the other hand, you would think Japan ought to have had Crazy Years, too, but didn't.) I considered Nevin's theory here in 2007 at some length. It seems to me to deserve more investigation.
- I think we may be getting a less violent sort of Mexican illegal alien since the rise of the drug wars in Mexico over the last couple of decades. Mexico used to be a police state in which the police had such an upper hand that life was pretty calm. My father and I wandered all over Mexico on vacations in the 1960s to mid 1980s without noticing much crime other than shakedowns, or much evidence that anybody was worried about crime. To the kind of young Mexican man who liked crime, America may have seemed like a happier hunting ground.
On a 1996 trip to Ensenada, however, the number of men standing around gripping automatic weapons was not confidence inducing. The gigantic new mountaintop villas overlooking the seaside golfcourse suggested that I didn't want to know how the owners had gotten their wealth or why they felt the need to employ so many men with AK-47s to guard them.
As American police forces regained the upper hand in the 1990s by sending criminals off to prison for a long time, opportunities for dangerous young men boomed in Mexico's burgeoning crime world. I suspect that America started getting the less violent illegal immigrants on average, while their more dangerous cousins stayed home to be narcos. There may even have been some reverse migration of the craziest Mexican-Americans into Mexico to fight in the drug wars.