In a nation desperate for good news, here’s some. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, during 2010, U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced a double-digit drop (13 percent) in the rate of violent victimization. There were 3.8 million violent crimes last year, down from 4.3 million in 2009. (The rate of property victimization, which includes burglary, motor vehicle theft and household theft also declined by six percent during the year.)
The drop in violent victimization, from about 17 victimizations per 1,000 residents in 2009 to 15 per 1,000 in 2010, was three times the average annual rate of decline experienced during the last nine years. And during the 10-year period from 2001 to 2010, the overall violent victimization rate decreased by 40 percent, and the property victimization rate fell by 28 percent. This, in turn, was part of a larger trend. From 1993 to 2010, the violent crime victimization rate decreased 70 percent, while the property crime victimization rate fell 62 percent.
The drop in crime is, along with welfare reform, among the great social achievements of the last half-century. The progress we’ve made against crime, starting around 1993, is nothing short of stunning – and it occurred during a period when criminologists were predicting crime would rise for demographic reasons (on influx of males reaching adolescence and young adulthood).
There are many explanations for this achievement, including higher incarceration rates, private security, improved technology, and advances in policing. Law
enforcement officers are simply much better than ever at spotting crime trends and responding to them more quickly. Another possibility is that we are seeing
a social and moral “re-norming” Francis Fukuyama wrote about in The Great Disruption. (Fukuyama cited historical examples of societies undergoing periods of moral decline followed by periods of moral recovery and argued that in the case of America, the aftermath of the cultural breakdown of the 1960s had given way to a reassessment and recovery of social and moral norms.)
Whatever the case, at a time when faith in our public institutions, including government, is collapsing, it’s worth reminding ourselves the first duty of government is to secure order. “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention,” John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 3, “that of providing for their safety seems to be the first.” Order, then, is the sine qua non, the necessary precondition. Without it, we can hardly expect justice and prosperity, family life and schools, to flourish.
For almost two decades now, in city after city, we have seen how enforcing good laws has allowed public space to be regained, order and civility restored, and civic life revivified. Progress against crime required government coercion, but it has been carried out in a manner far from capricious or draconian. Criminals have rights, from lawyers to trials to an appeals process. Third parties arbitrate the process. Punishment is meted out to the guilty, but they are protected
against the violent wrath of victims and their families and can avail themselves of the promise of rehabilitation. Our laws treat even the worst criminals with the kind of decency and respect they never demonstrated to their victims. That is a sign of a decent and humane civilization.
Crime is the result of evil that exists within the human heart. Government is charged with restraining such evil – and when it acts intelligently and comprehensively, as it has in the area of crime, it deserves the public’s esteem and gratitude. That’s something even–and maybe especially–conservatives need to keep in mind.