Crime is down in Oregon — but why?

Doug Harcleroad
Senior Policy Advisor
Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance

Major newspapers in Oregon have recently written front page stories telling us that crime is down around the country and in Oregon. These stories are based on the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI and include seven serious crimes: murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape, robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft (arson is sometimes counted as the 8th crime).

This is good news, and the 2009 numbers continue to show a drop in crime that started in about 1995. This 14-year trend downward is significant, and if it continues, may eventually reach the crime levels of 1960 – which would be a very good thing. More specifically, in 1960 there were about 60 violent crimes per 100,000 people in Oregon. In 2009, there were about 200 violent crimes per 100,000 people in Oregon. So…although the recent 14-year trend in serious violent crime is down in Oregon, we still have a long way to go to reach the safety level of 1960. The reason for this problem is that violent crime in Oregon rose 691% (this is not a typo – 691% is right) between 1960 and 1995. Thus, significant violent crime drops over the last 14 years have not made up for the 691% dramatic rise in Oregon’s violent crime which occurred earlier.

What has caused the 14-year significant drop in crime, and more importantly, what can we do to continue these good results?
• Crime analyst, Terry Smith, has studied the last 4 economic recessions and has observed that crime dropped in each of the recessions. Unfortunately, having recessions is not an acceptable way to reduce crime because of the other negative effects of a recession.

• Thanks to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission and other research groups, we know that individuals, particularly males, between the ages of 15 years and 30-35 years proportionally commit more of the crimes than the other age groups. We also know that this age group, as a proportion of our population, has declined, just as crime has declined over the past 14-15 years. However, regulating our population age groups is not possible or desirable in our free society.

• The significant drop in crime in the 1990s and through 2009, particularly in Oregon, corresponds with many states, including Oregon, passing so-called “get tough on crime” measures. Fortunately, Oregon’s measure was specifically targeted at 16 serious violent crimes; so although more prison space was necessary, it is only for the serious violent offenders.

As state and federal budgets become tighter and tighter, all areas should be looked at for cost savings. In the public safety arena, policymakers need to be careful that they do not undo the gains in lower crime rates of the last 15 years by reducing budgets to levels which will cause the crime rates to start to rise as they did from the 1960s to 1995.

Doug Harcleroad
Senior Policy Advisor