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Crime Rates Are Plummeting -- And No One Knows Why

Could it be that America is actually turning less violent? Or are we as violent as ever — but have simply found different ways of assuaging our urges?

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Do crimewatch TV shows such as America's Most Wanted spur viewers into action? Do reality shows such as Cops and The First 48 humanize police, making viewers help rather than hate them? In books such as More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 1998), conservative economist John Lott attributes shrinking crime rates to increased legal gun ownership.

Could it be that America is actually turning less violent? Or are we as violent as ever — but have simply found less interpersonal means of assuaging our urges?

Award-winning University of Hawaii anatomist Milton Diamond believes that one powerful tool in reducing at least one type of violent crime is porn — including kiddie porn.

Published last fall in the scholarly journal Archives of Sexual Behavior , Diamond's latest academic study tracked crime in the Czech Republic after pornography was legalized there. 

"As found in all other countries in which the phenomenon has been studied, rape and other sex crimes did not increase," Diamond's report reads. In particular, Denmark and Japan "had a prolonged interval during which possession of child pornography was not illegal." When kiddie porn was legal in Denmark and Japan, both countries "showed a significant decrease in the incidence of child sex abuse."

Diamond — who directs UH's Pacific Center for Sex and Society and won this year's Kinsey Award for the Scientific Study of Sexuality — does not approve of actual children being used in porn, but rather images of children produced via artwork or computer graphics.

"It's the lesser of two evils," he says. 

"Why would someone commit a crime if he didn't have to? Does he say, 'I'm gonna go out and rape somebody'? Or might he say, 'Look, there's a danger in doing that, and I'm horny, so now I'll masturbate'? If I was a potential rapist, I'd be thinking, 'Why the hell would I want to go out in the cold when I can stay inside and masturbate?' Think of all the problems we could solve this way.

"We can't say that every potential rapist is crazy or stupid. They're reacting to the same things everybody reacts to." Pre-Internet and pre-DVD, "they went out and 'did something' about those reactions," Diamond asserts, but now they can stay safely at home, ensconced with electronic fantasies.

"If I have a choice between having real children abused or having child porn on the Net, I say have child porn and save kids. I want the same thing anti-porn protesters want: to stop child abuse. If porn will do it, I'm for it."

Whatever's curbing crime these days, it's making fools of those who predicted that an economic meltdown would turn America into a Mad Max ian hellzone terrorized by bloodthirsty out-of-work stock clerks. 

"Murder, Suicide Rates Climb When Jobs Vanish and Economy Slows," Bloomberg blared, citing a 2009 study published in The Lancet that linked every 1 percent increase in unemployment with a .79 percent increase in homicides. (But according to the same study, every 1 percent increase in unemployment is also linked with a 1.39 percent decrease in car-crash deaths. So in that sense, economic collapse saves nearly twice as many lives as it takes.)

"If you go by the old adage that crime is tied to the economy, then these should be banner years for violent crime," says the LAPD's Kuns. "But it's going in the opposite direction."

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics' annual National Crime Victimization Survey, violent and property crime rates were lower in 2008 than at any time since these surveys began in 1973. According to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime declined 6.2 percent nationwide just in the first half of 2010. Broken down by region, murder/rape/robbery/aggravated assault fell by 7.8 percent in the South, 7.2 percent in both the Midwest and West, and a comparatively — troublingly — small 0.2 percent in the Northeast.
"Economic conditions and crime: This is a very complicated relationship," says Stanford University law professor Lawrence Friedman, the award-winning author of Crime and Punishment in American History (Basic Books, 1994). "Dire economic circumstances certainly give some people incentives to commit property crimes. But on the whole, it is hard to show a correlation, espe cially if you look at the broad sweep of history. The period after World War II was one of tremendous economic growth, and yet the violent crime rate went up dramatically" in the US at that time. 

Was it because the war's end brought home a huge influx of young males, the demographic most likely to commit violent crimes? Clearly the perpetrators of all those postwar murders, rapes, assaults and strongarm robberies weren't famished bread thieves a la Les Misérables . This should shatter the romance that most criminals commit crimes not by choice but by necessity. 

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