Broke and breaking the law

Is the recession to blame for rising crime rates?

Feb 4, 2009 at 6:00 am

Unemployment in Kentucky recently soared to its highest point in two decades, with no relief on the horizon. This means more people will lose their homes as a result of being out of work, as foreclosures are expected to exceed the record number reported in the United States last year.

And it seems the ripple effect of this dire economic outlook does not stop there: As the economy spirals downward, crime is on the rise, a domino effect local law enforcement officials acknowledge is likely happening here in Louisville.

“When you have an economy that’s going down and an increase in unemployment, you can have a significant uptick in certain crimes,” says Lt. Col. Troy Riggs of Louisville Metro Police.

Crimes particularly sensitive to spiking during a downturn in the economy include robbery, burglary and theft, says Riggs, adding: “We’ve been seeing that trend here for the past few months.”

Late last year the National Bureau of Economic Research — a nonprofit group that evaluates business cycles — declared the United States has been in the midst of an economic recession since December 2007.

A comparison of Louisville crime statistics from September 2007 and September 2008 (the latest stats available) reveals crime has indeed increased, in some categories dramatically, as the economy has tumbled.

In September 2007, there were 608 burglaries reported in Louisville Metro, compared with 712 during that period the following year. There were 165 robberies in September 2007, compared with 187 in 2008. Property crimes like vandalism also increased, from 2,574 to 2,650.

Violent crimes across the board jumped as well, according to a review of reports from September 2007 and 2008: murders rose from 2 to 6, rapes from 16 to 23, aggravated assaults from 184 to 232 and simple assaults from 539 to 639.

“Maybe it’s an anomaly and it will subside,” says Riggs. “But it’s something we’re watching closely.”

Of particular concern is an increase in reports of domestic abuse, which Riggs attributes in large part to added stress in families due to economic hardship.

Statistics provided by the Center for Women and Families in Louisville confirm there has been a spike in domestic violence during the past year.

“We do not believe that economic strife causes domestic violence, but it certainly exacerbates the situation and can create additional barriers to leaving,” says Corissa Phillips, communications director at the Center for Women and Families.

In 2007, the center provided services to 4,893 unduplicated abuse victims, compared with 5,343 last year. Services offered at the center’s shelter increased by 10 percent in 2008, while requests for counseling jumped 15 percent.

And while Phillips says economic troubles alone are not the root cause of domestic abuse, they certainly can be an aggravating factor, leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of violence in an already turbulent relationship.

“All of these things are working in a whirlwind that’s really contributing to and worsening situations of abuse that already exist,” she says. “Unemployment and poverty just make matters worse.”

Although a rise and fall in crime rates seems to parallel the ebb and flow of the economy, experts are cautious not to definitively link the two, arguing there are too many varying factors.

“There appears to be some evidence of a link between the national economy and crime rates, but the linkage is not as clear as one might suppose,” says Mark Austin, associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, adding that it is especially difficult to link the economic crisis to a rise in violent crime.

A rise in vandalism, robberies and theft can be more easily explained by the recession, says Austin, adding that such activities might very well escalate further if the record pace of foreclosures continues.

“We may see an increase in property crimes in particular cities and/or neighborhoods that experience abandonment of homes from the problems in the economy and the mortgage crisis,” he says.

As residents and businesses abandon neighborhoods as a result of foreclosures and bankruptcies, Austin suggests such areas might experience a decline in “social controls,” meaning fewer neighbors will watch out for one another, and more young people will be unsupervised. In turn, neighborhoods can become blighted with trash and abandoned homes, which are often havens for crime, including drug activity and prostitution.

But, Austin says: “I don’t know if these increases in crime, if they occur, will be enough to substantially impact the overall national crime rates. In retrospect, we may find that the crimes and misdeeds on Wall Street may have more impact on the nation than changes in national crime rates due to the economic downturn.”