The recent Australian Crime, Facts and Figures 2005 showed a widespread reduction in crime across Australia over the past decade:
- Homicides were lower in 2004 than since 1996 and have fallen each year since 1999.
- Robberies are at their lowest since 1997 and have fallen each year since 2001.
- Motor thefts have fallen continuously since 1998 while ‘unlawful entries with intent’ have fallen since 2000.
- Arrests for drug offences have fallen 24% since 1995/96, in part due to drug law reforms.
An exception to this happy picture is that assault figures, which comprise the vast majority of violent crimes, and particularly recorded sexual assault figures, have risen steadily since 1996. 82% of sex assaults are on females (mostly girls aged 10-14 years) but boys aged under 10 years made up 33% of victims in this age group. Interpreting these sex and assault statistics is difficult. There are low rates of reporting such crimes to police so rising trends in recorded crime might reflect mainly increased incentives to report.
The big issue: Why the improvement?
Is the fall due to the substantial improvement in the economy over the past decade with greatly reduced unemployment? To better policing? Or, as suggested in an earlier post, is it due to changed abortion laws that reduced unwanted children 20 years back? As I wrote in that post:
….Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in Freakonomics … show ….The main factor explaining the reduction in the crime rate in the 1990s was the Roe v. Wade ruling in the US Supreme Court that extended legalised abortion to the entire US. The …evidence provided in Freakonomics strongly suggests that it was unwanted children who tended to become criminals and murderers. Abortion law reform reduced numbers of such children…..'
Andrew Leigh confirms similar findings for Australia here. This evidence is less clearcut than that for the US since there was no specific date from which access to abortion became legal but liberalisation did tend to occur at the end of the 1960s with the murder rate peaking 20 years later as with US experience. In the 1990s when the law could be expected to impact on numbers of unwanted children the homicide rate fell.
Like Leigh, the Wikipedia discussion of abortion in Australia dates the introduction of liberalised abortion laws in most Australian states to 1969/1970 or 35 years ago. The Australian abortion statistics are poor but numbers of abortions rose strongly from 1984-1996 and have continued to have risen steadily in recent years. This is consistent with sharply-reduced crime now.
As I stated in my earlier post I am not a keen supporter of abortion - as a parent I have an irremovable, intense, negative block on the idea of killing anything approximating a young 'child' - and am unhappy with recent Australian trends as described. But I am (i) not sure it is my business to impose my views on others on this, (ii) unsure of the effectiveness of prohibitions anyway, and, (iii) must identify some positive social consequences of abortions on crime.
The determinants of recent crime trends, and the role of abortion laws in particular, would make a good PhD topic for an empirically-minded economist with interests in social issues. Interested takers?