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The extent of crime in Western societies is an issue of grave concern to public officials and criminologists alike. Those who are projecting police budgets and building prisons need to know the levels and kinds of crime to expect in future years, just as those who think more broadly about the causes of crime need to know how it has undermined society in years past. Many in the public seek information about crime trends, and many groups develop such information. The problems inherent in determining the distribution of crime in society as well as its historical trends are substantial, and before an estimate of its historical extent in Western society can be provided, the difficulties in gathering such information should be considered.
Problems of Measurement
Since the incidence of crime is largely unpredictable—like an earthquake—it can be measured only after it has already taken place. The measurement of crime, therefore, is subject to all the errors that indirect measurements entails. Attempts to measure crime omit some cases, record some that are not criminal, and incorrectly classify others. All attempts to measure crime reflect not simply the underlying incidence of criminal behavior but also any biases inherent in the measurement process itself.
Three common sources of information about crime include governmental organizations (the police, the courts, and correctional departments), individual researchers in contact with offenders (self-report studies), and survey organizations such as the U.S. Census Bureau, which collects victimization data. Most of what is known about crime is derived from at least one of these sources. Each assesses a distinct facet of crime and experiences distinct problems. Crime data issued by the courts and police have been a major source of information regarding criminality, especially before the modern era, but one must be aware of biases in data.
Police departments in particular are subject to many pressures that distort the crime picture they present. Some large departments are more effective in solving criminal cases than others, as a result of professional leadership, high morale, careful recruitment, or strong training programs. At the same time small departments in towns under ten thousand where neighborliness is the rule often have more accurate statistics regarding offenders, whether juveniles or adults; whites or blacks; or males or females, because thanks to cooperative attitudes among local people, they are able to solve a much larger portion of their minor crimes than departments in large cities. In towns with populations under 10,000 for example, 27.6 percent of motor vehicle thefts were cleared by arrests in 1998, but in cities with populations of one million or over, only 8.8 percent of these offenses were cleared.
This differential carries important implications for crime data on such problems as juvenile delinquency. If auto thefts are not cleared by arrests, the police have no basis for knowing what portion was committed by juveniles—normally about 8 percent in cities greater than 1 million. Since motor vehicle thefts are solved in small towns at rates substantially higher than in major cities, demographic data on auto thieves in small towns is more accurate than in large cities. In comparing the delinquency problem in major cities and small towns one must keep this difference in mind.
Inaccurate population estimates and subsequent distortions in crime rates also pose problems. It is very difficult to estimate population levels of cities and towns during serious social turmoil. During the Civil War large numbers of citizens were transplanted, thus making it difficult to gauge population size. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a census in Massachusetts at the beginning of the 1860s, and the state itself carried out another in 1865. But with a rapid influx of immigrants from Ireland and disturbances accompanying the Civil War, many lower-class people were not counted. Although the arrest figures were apparently accurate, arrests per 10,000 (as computed in those days) were inflated as a result of an under-estimate in the overall count. Crime data must be presented as rates per unit of population to enable comparisons among different sized cities, but if the population is inaccurately counted, crime rates will be skewed and comparisons unwise.
A different kind of problem plagues comparisons of criminality during different periods in the history of a city. It is common knowledge that policing takes several different forms or styles and that these distinctive styles operate at different levels of effectiveness. James Q. Wilson (1968) has identified three common patterns of operation among police departments. The service department tends to be small, close to the community, and informal, with few authority levels and little specialization. The watchman department tends to be larger, serving ethnically diverse cities in a balanced, unaggressive fashion. It seeks to avoid interethnic conflict and attempts above all to maintain stability in the community. The legalistic department puts more emphasis upon careful recruitment, sound training, and careful, dispassionate administration of the law (Wilson, chapters 6–8). This typology, though often criticized, has been widely used in police research. As a police department grows, if often becomes more formal and less approachable (Ferdinand, 1976). And as it evolves from a service to a legalistic or watchman pattern, its overall effectiveness and clearance rate decline. Such changes can have a sharp impact on complaints known to the police and on estimates of delinquency. Changes in city crime rates over several decades may well reflect such organizational changes. Long-term fluctuations in violent crime in Boston and Salem, cited below, probably also reflect such changes, that is, shifts in police style. Citizen cooperation, complaints brought to the police, and clearance rates all gradually decline as the community and its police department mature.
Court data must also be used with an eye to the peculiarities of a changing court system. Different criminal courts normally have jurisdiction over different segments of the criminal spectrum. City, state, and federal courts each despose of a distinctive blend of crime, and no single court can provide an accurate estimate of crime in a city. Each has its own distinctive jurisdiction, but two courts at different levels in the same system provide a more complete picture. Each court nevertheless follows different policies in prosecuting crime, and their jurisdictions do not overlap precisely. It is not always feasible, therefore, to assemble an accurate estimate of crime in the community from the activities of two or more related courts at different levels in the same system. Pitfalls also await those who would compare the activities of a single court over time. For example, the same court may change its name and jurisdiction with the result that historians might inadvertently compare a lower court with a higher court. The Boston Municipal Court was established in 1800, but in 1859 it was renamed the Superior Court of Suffolk County. The Boston Police Court was founded in 1822, and in 1859 it was renamed the Municipal Court of Boston! A comparison of the Municipal Court in 1850 with the Municipal Court in 1870 would be inappropriate, because it would compare a lower court with a higher one. Despite these problems, the courts and the police are very useful sources of information regarding the incidence and distribution of crime, and for historical periods they offer virtually the only systematic data available. It is wise, nevertheless, to be aware of their weaknesses.
Criminality in The Premodern Era
Since criminal justice agencies did not issue regular reports before the modern era, knowledge of premodern criminality is limited. It is based for the most part on studies of early court records, church documents, or coroners’ rolls and requires a painstaking effort to collect and infer useful data from handwritten documents. Studies of medieval European towns generally report very high levels of violent personal crime but lower levels of property crime. Naeshagen discovered that the homicide rate in Bergen, Norway, dropped from 80 per 100,000 in 1550 to 1 per 100,000 in 1800, and a study of coroners’ rolls in fourteenth-century London revealed an annual homicide rate of about 44 per 100,000, or 110 times the modern rate of 0.4 per 100,000 in London (Hanawalt, p. 98). Very few infanticide cases were reported in Hanawalt’s early study, and only about 2 percent involved intrafamilial violence, suggesting that such homicides were seriously underreported. At the same time, contemporary documents report a heightened alarm among citizens regarding the level of violence. Medieval communities from the Baltic to the Mediterranean were dangerous places. Given estimates, for example, that ‘‘every person in England in the thirteenth century, if he did not personally witness a murder, knew or knew of someone who had been killed’’ (p. 40).
By the end of the sixteenth century judges and others in England regularly lamented the rising tide of lawlessness, although the best evidence indicates that violent crime had not increased significantly since the fourteenth century. In rural areas crime was more typical of yeomen than peasants, though the gentry regularly defied the courts and were rarely punished. Justice was certainly swift in sixteenth-century England, but it was by no means sure (Baker). Those convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to die were, in the absence of reprieve, marched out of the courtroom and promptly hanged. But there were many legal detours on the way to the gallows. Pardons, both special and general, were one way of cheating the hangman; insanity, pregnancy, and childhood were others. The most common loophole was benefit of clergy, which by the sixteenth century had been extended to all who could read but was limited to cases of minor theft.
With the growth of commerce in seventeenth-century England, violent crime seems to have receded. A study of seventeenth-century Surrey and Sussex Counties indicates that the annual rate of homicide indictments for 1663– 1694 was about 5.7 per 100,000, but by 1780– 1802 this figure had dropped to 2.3 per 100,000. Property crime, however, increased slightly, with 53 indictments in the 1690s to 65 per 100,000 by the 1760s (Beattie, 1974). Indictments for both violent and property crimes were more common in urban areas (see Beattie, 1986, chaps. 3 and 4). Colonial America experienced an even higher level of recorded criminality. The rate of violent crime in Boston in the early decades of the eighteenth century was about equal to that found for Surrey and Sussex, that is, 37 indictments per 100,000 between 1703 and 1732, but property crime in Boston was roughly twice as common at 123 indictments per 100,000 (Ferdinand, 1980a). This contrast is particularly striking in that Puritan New England had a reputation among the American colonies for sober conventionality and low crime.
Overall, one can place some confidence in these early studies of criminality, particularly those of homicide, since violent death was treated seriously by legal institutions. But medieval definitions of homicide embraced a much broader range of violent deaths than is the case today. They included, for example, many forms of accidental death that would not have found their way into a modern criminal court. While today’s deadly weapons can kill from afar without warning (see Lane, 1979, p. 80), three hundred years ago fists, feet, spears, swords, and daggers required a determined effort that involved dangerous confrontations. Very high rates of homicide reported in the medieval period reflect these differences. On the other hand, infanticide was relatively common though prosecuted only haphazardly in earlier times (see Beattie, 1986, pp. 117–124; Lane, 1979, pp. 96–100, 110–111). Today it is systematically prosecuted as homicide. All in all, however, the level of violence was substantially higher in premodern Europe.
The figures for lesser crime are difficult to evaluate since legal institutions generally played a limited role in adjudicating minor offenses in deference to the church or other informal methods for punishing minor misbehavior. A large number of minor property crimes was settled privately by the victim and offender, and any estimate of premodern property crime probably underestimates its actual incidence. Many victims were reluctant to take their complaints to the courts, which had a reputation for uneven justice. Moreover, even short-term prison sentences often meant death, since living conditions in prison were abominable (Beattie, 1986, pp. 302– 303). Many offenders went free, and many victims preferred to settle matters themselves. Unless there was a powerful reason for reporting a criminal offense to the court, many victims simply suffered in silence or settled matters individually.
Estimates of Crime in The Modern Era
Early studies of property crime during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are colored by the role of legal institutions in the community. Where the courts were merely formal instruments for carrying out the informal will of the community—or where, in addition to the courts, the church and other nonlegal institutions played a major part in sanctioning wrongdoers as in medieval Europe and colonial America—the picture of crime provided by studies of court records probably underestimates the actual level of minor property crime. Where the courts had already achieved a high degree of independence and authority in a largely secular society, as in eighteenth-century England, estimates of criminality based upon court records are more accurate.
As the estimates of crime for modern societies are examined, the pattern becomes more interesting. Much more is known about the sociopolitical and legal forces that produced the reported crime patterns. The strains that modernization fostered in these societies are well understood, and the legal institutions themselves were often straining to develop the structures and procedures of a modern court system. The training of lawyers and judges was improved, criminal procedures were sharpened and rationalized, and new forensic methods for coping with a mounting volume of minor crime were invented, so that as the character of criminality changed in response to modernization, the legal institutions for coping with it were simultaneously perfected. Since both processes were occurring simultaneously, it is difficult to know which picture crime studies represent: crime as a changing social phenomenon, or crime as a reflection of evolving criminal institutions. In most cases the picture is a double exposure reflecting both aspect of the crime scene.
A number of studies relying heavily on court records have focused on crime in nineteenth-century cities and nations. Police data became available around the middle of the nineteenth century, and accordingly several investigators utilized this important source as well. Virtually every study reports a steady but substantial decline in crime during the nineteenth century. In France, for example, serious crime fell by nearly 90 percent between 1826 and 1954 (Lodhi and Tilly). In England and Wales indictable offenses declined by 79 percent between 1842 and 1891, and in London they declined by 63 percent between the 1820s and 1870s (Gatrell and Hadden). Much of the decline in London reflects a sharp drop in violent crime of about 68 percent between the 1830s and the 1860s. Larceny indictments also decreased in London, from about 220 per 100,000 in the 1830s and 1840s to about 70 per 100,000 in the 1850s, again by 68 percent. This decline, however, stems at least partially from a revision of the criminal code in 1855, which removed minor larcenies from the indictable category and permitted courts to deal with them summarily. Although this revision treated simple assaults similarly, nearly all the decline in assaults had occurred by 1855. Other property crimes, particularly burglary, fraud, and embezzlement, increased during this period or remained steady. In Stockholm the number of persons accused of theft fell from about 75 per 100,000 in the 1840s to about 22 in 1990, a 71 percent decline, and the number of persons sentenced for assault or breach of the peace dropped from about 400 per 100,000 in the 1840s to about 60 in the 1920s, an 85 percent decrease (Gurr, Grabosky, and Hula, pp. 256–257). One of the few studies to reveal a different pattern focused on the Black Country, an area around Birmingham, England, that became a major steel-producing region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As the Black Country industrialized, it experienced steady increases in criminality. Larceny committals to trial rose from 91 per 100,000 in 1835 to about 262 in 1860, an increase of 188 percent, and committals to trial for offenses against the person increased from about 6 per 100,000 to about 14, a 133 percent increase (Philips, p. 143). This study suggests that rural areas and small towns exhibited sharply higher levels of criminality as they industrialized, whereas other studies of more heavily urbanized areas such as London and Stockholm found declines in serious criminality as they and their surrounding communities developed.
Studies of criminality in nineteenth-century American cities tend to bear out these data. In Boston the peak of recorded violent crime during the nineteenth century occurred in 1824 and was not exceeded until the 1970s. In 1824, shortly after it was established, the Boston Police Court recorded 1,430.5 prosecutions per 100,000 for crimes against the person, a figure close to four times the comparable arrest figure of 387.8 per 100,000 recorded by the police in 1967. Fluctuations in crime corresponding to wars and economic cycles beset Boston over the years, but the low mark in serious violent crime was recorded during 1928–1930, when the rate was only 28 percent of the 1824 peak. Property crime during the nineteenth century rose slightly from 859.4 per 100,000 in 1824 to 878.2 per 100,000 in 1884–1885 (Ferdinand, 1980a), and similar declines in violent crime occurred during the nineteenth century in Buffalo, New York (Powell), and Salem, Massachusetts (Ferdinand, 1972). On the other hand, a study of crime in Rockford, Illinois, founded in the 1840s, revealed that violent crime rose sharply from 1882–1884 to 1905–1907 (Ferdinand, 1976). After declining in the first half of the twentieth century, it rose sharply again during the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, established cities like Boston, Salem, and Buffalo enjoyed declining violent crime rates as they modernized, whereas relatively new communities and rural areas suffered rising violent crime rates as they industrialized.
The distinctive crime pattern of old cities undergoing industrialization has been explored carefully in a series of historical studies of European communities (Zehr). Older cities, though already high in violent crime, initially experienced even greater increases in violence as they industrialized. Low levels of property crime but high levels of violence were characteristic of premodern villages and rural areas, but industrialization tended to transform them into metropolitan centers with lower levels of violent crime and higher levels of theft. Thus, four distinct patterns of crime can be discerned: High levels of violent crime in old, premodern cities; low levels of property crimes in old, premodern rural areas; and two transitional patterns in which (1) old cities are transformed into urban, industrial centers with rising levels of violence initially but with declining levels ultimately and (2) rural areas transformed into new industrial centers with little theft but growing violence—prompted in each case by industrialization (see Zehr, pp. 122–126).
In the United States, however, this paradigm does not seem to describe the development of Boston, Buffalo, Salem, and New Haven as old cities. Befitting premodern small towns, they all displayed declining violence, along with property crime that at least remained steady—a pattern that was accented by the early courts as they rejected minor violent crimes to minimize caseloads. Had they been old, industrializing cities in the European sense, they would have shown rising violent crime rates in the short-run at least. Rockford, Illinois, however, which began as an industrializing village in the 1840s, did show rising violence as it grew into a city (Ferdinand, 1967, 1978). ‘‘Old’’ American cities, which were actually preindustrial small towns, came into the industrial era already experiencing relatively high levels of violent crime. As they industrialized, they attracted poor Irish immigrants and democrats protesting autocratic governments in northwestern Europe. With industrialization and minimal immigration their rates of violence receded from already high levels, but new American cities that industrialized virtually from the beginning showed rising levels of violent crime as rural people from the hinterland streamed in. Clearly, ‘‘old’’ American towns came into the cycle at different points than the medieval cities in Europe, though the cycle may well be similar in Europe and the United States.
At the same time legal institutions also began to play a much broader role in controlling public behavior (Ferdinand, 1992, chaps. 2 and 5). As the criminal courts displaced the church in controlling minor crime, they often recorded increases in the number of criminal cases well beyond those handled by the church because at first they attempted to maintain much the same standard of behavior the church had imposed earlier. Some of this rise reflects the zealousness of the courts, but it also derives from social changes noted above. Since these changes (legal as well as social) do not act in close harmony with one another, the overall crime trends of a wide range of cities usually fail to show a consistent pattern (cf. Zehr).
Criminality in The Twentieth Century
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, criminality in Western societies, particularly property crime, fluctuated in response to changing economic conditions. Although wars had an impact on crime rates, reducing them during hostilities and raising them afterward, their effects were not long-lasting in America. Periods of economic distress usually resulted in higher levels of property crime, especially burglaries, whereas prosperity typically produced lower levels. Oddly enough, juvenile delinquency rates followed a very different path during the 1930s and 1940s (Glaser and Rice). They rose during prosperity and fell during depression. Throughout this period juveniles consisted of a small but growing part of the crime problem with the spreading influence of peer groups and youth culture. Overall, the trend in property crime was downward, at least through World War II.
The Western decline in criminality during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has triggered a controversy among historians and criminologists. Some believe that the decline represents a gradual adaptation of nineteenth-century immigrants to urban living (Lane, 1997, p. 186). Others argue that the decline reflects a growing effectiveness of urban police departments (Gatrell). On the whole, however, there are glaring difficulties with the thesis that declining urban crime rates between 1830 and 1950 resulted primarily from growing police efficiency. The earliest police departments were organized during the first half of the nineteenth century. The first was the London Metropolitan Police, in 1829, followed in the United States by police departments in Philadelphia (1833), Boston (1838), New York (1844), and Baltimore (1857). Their primary responsibility was to contain the civil disturbances that swept English and American cities during the early decades of the nineteenth century. During this period the middle class was growing rapidly, and they feared the mobs that gathered in cities during the summer months. Constables had checked crime in American cities during the early nineteenth century, but they were unable to cope with the riots that broke out with increasing frequency. Political support for an effective, centralized police force grew in these cities during the antebellum period.
If the decline in criminality after 1830 was an outgrowth of growing police effectiveness, why was the sharpest drop in violent personal crime and not in property crime? To be sure, property crimes are difficult to police because witnesses are rare, but why would the police concentrate mainly on violent crime? Moreover, why did violent crime continue to fall long after the appearance of well-organized police departments in the cities? In Boston, as reported, violent crime declined from 1824 (long before a modern police force was even proposed) to a level in 1928–1930 just 28 percent of that prevailing a century earlier. Those who see the police as an important factor in this decline must explain why a decline in violence preceded the establishment of a police force and why the benefits continued long after its introduction. Further, conviction rates improved during the nineteenth century in London, which might suggest greater police effectiveness, but more probably it reflects a tendency by the police to reject minor cases. By the end of the twentieth century, the clearance rates in most Western police departments, including those in London, had gradually declined.
The close relationship between declining crime rates and a growing bureaucratization of the police in the twentieth century also undermines the thesis of greater police effectiveness as a reason for lower crime rates. A sharp decline in arrests followed closely a shift from foot patrols to motorized patrols in Salem, Massachusetts, and in Rockford, Illinois (see Ferdinand, 1972 and 1976). Further, in Boston several officers made more than 1,000 arrests in the 1850s, and in Salem the mean number of arrests per officer per year rarely fell below 30 during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Ferdinand, 1992, p. 45; 1972). But when the Salem police force began to patrol in cars, annual arrests per officer dropped sharply, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s the rate never rose above 21. By the 1950s and early 1960s the rate had slipped below 10 arrests per officer per year. The decline in criminality noted in the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century probably stems more from broad changes in police organization than improvements in their ability to suppress crime.
Other shifts in police organization may also have contributed to a decline in crime rates between 1830 and 1950. Early police departments in American cities were often headed by men of reputation and integrity. Benjamin Pollard, who became Boston’s first city marshal in 1823, was a Harvard graduate, a lawyer, and a man of distinction. His immediate successors, Daniel Parkman and Ezra Weston, served as Boston’s police chiefs when the department was formed in 1838, and they were Harvard graduates and lawyers as well. In the beginning the Boston department was served by a cadre of officers who understood the purpose of police in a democratic society. But after the Civil War the department declined under the impact of fierce ethnic rivalries, intense political struggles, and organized vice.
Other urban departments, most notably in New York and Philadelphia, suffered similar burdens, and in general the quality of several major police departments, particularly in the old cities of the Northeast, dipped in the decades after the Civil War. The decline in crime in late nineteenth-century American cities can probably be attributed to a growing ineffectiveness in major urban police departments. Was an increasing efficiency of police departments a major factor in the decline in crime rates in the past 150 years? Probably not.
Another explanation is that urban immigrants, who had recently arrived from rural societies, were becoming better adapted to their communities as they gained experience with urban life (see Lane, 1997, p. 186). After settling into urban occupations and the city’s established neighborhoods, they were drawn to a more stable, relatively crime-free life by churches, ethnic clubs, labor unions, political groups, informal social groups, family, and relatives. For the most part it was the rootless poor who fell into crime. As growing numbers of newcomers were absorbed into the mainstream, tramps and hoboes of the nineteenth century began to disappear.
During the 1930s a mobile army of rootless men reappeared, but all through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries their ranks had been shrinking in favor of a stable working class that increasingly established itself in neighborhoods throughout the cities of America. It is probably no coincidence that drunkenness and prostitution also declined steadily during the 1920s. As the working classes assumed a settled, stable pattern of life, criminality bespeaking a disorganized lifestyle also shrank.
The Post–World War II Crime Wave
With the end of World War II and the economic recovery in Europe in the 1950s, crime rates and particularly rates of violent crime began to climb once again throughout the West. In England and Wales, murder and assault cases increased from 13 per 100,000 in 1950 to 144.3 per 100,000 in 1975, for an eleven-fold increase (Gurr, p. 363). During the same period the rate of larceny-theft rose from 847 per 100,000 to 3,659 per 100,000 for a more than four-fold increase, and by 1997 this figure came to 4,083 per 100,000. In Scandinavia much the same pattern unfolded. Between 1960 and 1974–1975, assaults and murders in Finland more than doubled from 127.9 to 282.0 per 100,000, and thefts more than tripled from 886 to 2,850 per 100,000. And in Stockholm between 1950 and 1971 the rates of thefts, assaults, and murders more than quadrupled (Gurr, p. 364).
These increases in Europe were recorded mainly in the cities, and a similar pattern prevailed in the United States. Between 1960 and 1997 violent crimes known to the police in the United States shot up from 160.9 to 610.8 per 100,000, and property complaints rose from 1,726.3 to 4,311.9 per 100,000 (see F.B.I., 1961– 1997).
The sources of this wave were certainly varied. They included among others a relative increase in the number of young people, the emergence of well-organized juvenile peer groups, and expressionism—a strong belief that one’s basic intuitions are accurate and justifiable. Expressionism took root in several hitherto tightly controlled groups—young people, females, blacks, and residents of rural areas. Between 1960 and 1997 the rate of arrests for violent crimes increased 500 percent among youths under 18; in rural counties the arrest rate for violent crimes increased by 251 percent between 1960 and 1980 for the same group (F.B.I., 1960– 1997); and for blacks the comparable figure was 215 percent (Uniform Crime Reports, 1961– 1997; Statistical Abstracts, 1960–1997). Property crime in the United States showed similar increases. From 1960 to 1977 the rate of females arrested for property crimes rose by 401 percent; the arrest rate of youths under 18 increased by 278 percent; and the arrest rate of blacks for property crimes climbed by 276 percent. Rural counties made a smaller contribution to the overall increase in property crime, rising by just 165 percent in the same period (F.B.I., 1961–1997). Such sharp increases are virtually unprecedented and are given careful consideration elsewhere.
Expressionism seems also to have affected the young people of Europe. After World War II several mildly antisocial groups became prominent in postwar European life: the Teddy Boys and Rockers in London, the Provos in Amsterdam, and the Raggare in Stockholm, and in the 1980s and 1990s other more criminal groups, such as football hooligans, skinheads, and, in the United States, youth gangs. In Europe youth crime was concentrated among young adults from eighteen to twenty-five, but in the United States youthful perpetrators were mainly under eighteen.
Among the explanations for sharp increases in youth crime in both the United States and Europe is the rapidly climbing birthrate after World War II. By the 1960s postwar babies had become teenagers and young adults, and as their numbers in comparison with other population segments grew, so did the percentage of those involved in crime. A study of the impact of the growing numbers of adolescents on postwar American crime revealed that 11.6 percent of the rise in serious crime between 1950 and 1965 was due simply to changes in the relative numbers of those 10–24 years old in the population. Auto theft and forcible rape were affected dramatically, up 13.8 and 47.1 percent, respectively; and homicide and aggravated assault were affected least of all—just 5.5 percent and 9.2 percent, respectively (Ferdinand, 1970).
But the young people in the 1960s had an impact on Western society not simply by virtue of their growing numbers. They were becoming increasingly conscious of their social and political position, and in the 1960s the dissenting voices of young people in Berkeley, Paris, and elsewhere were heard demanding change. This aggregation of young people into political, social, and seriously delinquent groups is a relatively modern development and is a major factor in the elevated crime rates of people at all levels of society. Young people learn the attitudes and techniques of delinquency and crime through the dominant youth culture, through their friends and peers, and as these peer networks have expanded, the problems of delinquency and youth crime also climbed sharply. In the United States youth gangs—many of them led by young adults—have supplanted traditional organized crime groups in several American cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles. The rapid rise in youth crime in the postwar period is to some extent a consequence of an expanding youth culture, the growth of expressionism, and a rejection of traditional bourgeois values.
A critical view of conservative Victorian values was inspired partially by the civil rights struggles during the 1960s and 1970s, though such criticism has roots back at least to the 1920s and to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and Babbit. Critical themes were embraced generally by young people after World War II, and the youth of Europe seized on iconoclastic themes as well. By the 1900s ‘‘hooligans’’ and ‘‘skinheads’’ in Europe had also become troublesome with their criminal behavior.
The discussion has identified several patterns in Western criminal behavior. First, evolving social and legal institutions in the West have contributed basically to a long-term, secular decline in violent offenses—a decline in homicide from fourteenth-century London to seventeenth-century Surrey and Sussex; a decline in violent offenses from 1824 to 1928 in Boston; and sizable declines in Bergen, Norway, and nineteenth-century London and Stockholm undoubtedly owe much to the gradual emergence of civic culture and rational legal institutions in the West.
The forerunner of modern legal institutions in England appeared first during the Middle Ages as the ‘‘King’s Peace’’—a domestic peace enforced by the King himself. Serious violations of the law were taken as violations of the King’s Peace and were tried and punished by the King’s royal courts. It was not possible, however, to institute a system of law everywhere at once by decree. Subduing violence depended upon a maturation of public culture so that individuals were willing to submit their personal quarrels to the king and his officers. Justice had to be legitimate, strong, and widespread to guarantee that those who accepted its authority would not be subsequently plundered by those who did not. As people recognized the fairness and justice of the royal courts, the legitimacy of legal solutions was increasingly accepted, and violence became less common in both public and private life. Under the impact of evolving legal institutions, a civic temper took hold among the English, and as this civic temper gained broader sway, serious crime and particularly violent crime receded. Acceptance of the King’s Peace was the beginning of a gradual process growing out of the public’s growing awareness of the efficacy of justice.
At the same time other forces were at work undermining the civilizing effects of royal justice and its institutions. As English society evolved from a folk-communal society to an urban-commercial society and later to an urban-industrial one, legal institutions displaced other important institutions in sanctioning deviance. The expanding jurisdiction of the criminal courts at first drove crime rates higher, but as we have seen, when legal institutions took firm root crime rates began to shrink.
A second conclusion focuses on the social bases of criminality. During much of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, crime trends and particularly property crimes were closely attuned to improving economic conditions in America. Moreover, criminality as recorded by the courts and police was largely a working-class or lower-class phenomenon; relatively few middle-class individuals were implicated in common law violations. By the turn of the nineteenth century economic crime by the middle classes was drawing keen attention, but it had not yet been addressed comprehensively in the law.
During the 1960s and beyond, however, the close association between poverty and crime weakened. Prosperity was widespread and living standards were improving generally. But criminality rose even more rapidly, especially among the wealthy classes. It is now apparent that the values of broad segments of society changed during the 1960s and that new styles of behavior arose, some of which violated the criminal law. The changing crime patterns of the 1960s challenged economically based explanations of crime that had dominated the thinking of policymakers and criminologists for decades. Organized criminal groups became a major factor in the crime picture of Western nations.
A historical survey of crime patterns provides an excellent perspective against which to interpret modern developments. Present-day crime is relatively slight when compared with earlier times, and this improvement depends as much upon an emergence of civic culture as on instruments of justice. Such a survey also provides a basis for projecting future trends, though caution must prevail. Conditions that were important in the past may well prove insignificant in the future.
Although the levels of crime in the West may decline in the new millennium, the most prominent forms of crime in coming years will continue to be those spawned by youthful expressionism— gangs, illegal drugs, and violence. Crimes of protest will also continue, though probably not with the same intensity as in the recent past. Youth culture is a permanent feature of the modern world, and the implications of this fact for criminality are inescapable. A significant segment of the youth will continue to engage in criminal behavior, but skillful management of a prosperous economy could mean lower overall crime rates among both blacks and youths in the twenty-first century.
The assimilation of blacks in broader society has begun, and a black middle class with significant economic and political impact has emerged so that crime by blacks may well continue to moderate in coming years. Indeed, the incidence of black crime has already slackened. In 1976 47.5 percent of violent crimes were committed by blacks, but in 1997 the corresponding figure was 41.1 percent (F.B.I., 1976–1997). Since 1976 the increase in violent crime by blacks has not kept pace with that of the society as a whole. In the United States the groups that have been heaviest contributors to criminality since the 1960s— young people and blacks—will lead a gradual decline in the coming decades. Indeed, between 1994 and 1998 violent juvenile crime dropped 19.2 percent (F.B.I., 1998, Table 34, p. 216), and continued declines in the future seemed likely. Violent crime rates could fall 10 to 15 percent from present levels by 2010.
Young women, like blacks, are intensely involved in a male-dominated youth culture, and expressionism among women is not uncommon. The expressionism of young women assumes a distinctive form, one that focuses heavily on sexual liberation and male-female relationships (Carns); mature women, on the other hand, are more independent, less imitative of male culture, less focused on male relationships, and more concerned with asserting their social and economic equality. How these differences evolve, as well as how they translate into crime, remain to be seen. Further increases in minor drug violations and larceny, along with continued instability in family relationships, seem likely for women as a whole. But female crime is only a small part of the overall picture, and increases here, even if in percentage terms, will not alter significantly the prediction of an overall 15 to 20 percent reduction in serious crime.
All the other components contributing to criminality in American cities, such as organized crime, professional crime, and immigration patterns should continue in much the same way as in the 1990s. Thus, declines in criminality projected for blacks and youths should contribute to an overall reduction of criminal activity in the United States by about 15 percent. Cities with heavy Hispanic immigrations, such as Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles, will show declines smaller than those in cities like Minneapolis or San Jose, which have little Hispanic immigration. Added to these adjustments in the continued long-term integration of the underclass into the urban social fabric, which will also contribute to a slow decline in lower-class crime. Social dislocations such as severe depressions or political divisions will aggravate the crime problem, but the crime pattern of the nineteenth century, in which economic conditions in the lower classes broadly affected the level of crime in society, is being replaced by a pattern more closely affected by the values and morale of distinctive social and political groups. Some of these groups—women, blacks, and youths—are influenced more by their general social prospects than by their immediate economic condition. Accordingly, economic explanations of crime advanced by theorists in the 1970s will be of less value in the 1980s than theories focusing on the existential and social conditions of groups central to the crime problem.
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