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Crime Inc.

An alternate explanation for a drop in crime

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Just two days after the senseless and tragic shooting of five students at Duquesne University, the FBI released its annual report of crime statistics, titled Crime in the U.S. While the report belies the events on the Bluff, it appears that Pittsburgh, already the safest city of its size, according to the FBI, became even safer. Bucking a national trend that saw violent crime increase by 2.3 percent last year in the U.S. as a whole, and by 3.5 percent in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh experienced an almost 10 percent decrease. Obviously, someone is doing something right.

As the people charged with protecting public safety, the Pittsburgh police are the most likely suspects. There is also no doubt that a large number of the perpetrators from the shoot-'em-up days of the early '90s are in the joint. Though I am not in favor of the profligate use of incarceration in the United States, it can't be denied that prison is the appropriate place for violent people.

It also seems likely that a lot of the people who were committing all of those violent crimes a decade ago are dead. Live by the sword, etc. And regardless of what the people who make political hay out of scaring people would have you believe, there are only a limited number of people prone to committing criminal acts of violence. Even I, despite spending years behind bars, know only a few.

The police, for their part, credit civilians. "Community groups, churches and residents in general are reaching out to help police do their jobs," outgoing Police Chief Dominic J. Costa told the Tribune-Review.

Unsatisfied that any of the above -- or any combination of the above -- tells the whole story, I called an ex-con who spends much of his time in a number of the city's higher-risk neighborhoods. His first response when I told him why I was calling was disbelief: Statistics aside, his perception of his own personal safety hasn't changed much over the years. He drove the point home by refusing to share his views until I promised not to use his name: Apparently, he still sees a lot of humorless people who wouldn't appreciate having him talk about their business.

He told me that one reason he believed that violent crime was on the decrease is that gang activity isn't what it once was. Sure, there are still some Crips and Bloods around, but that scene has settled down -- at least to the extent that people aren't getting shot for wearing the wrong-colored hat in the wrong part of town. That sort of extraneous violence, he said, is not tolerated by certain people because it is bad for business. The wide-open days when the advent of crack offered the opportunity of a profitable business, with low entry barriers to people who didn't have much else to do, are history. Gone with them are the turf wars that were the cause of much of the city's violent crime. Junkies tend to do things like shoplift, but there are other people who are real serious about protecting their ability to make money from them.

Today, according to my friend, the various territories around the city are staked out and run by people who care more about making money than making a reputation.

That's the way he sees it, anyway. There are other possibilities. University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt gained fame and created a stir last year when he asserted in his book Freakonomics that the crime rate was falling as a result of the legalization of abortion in 1973.

Thanks to Roe v. Wade, he argues, unwanted babies who would have turned into the disaffected youth who commit most crimes simply weren't born.

Levitt's argument is controversial, but here's a possibility that just came to me. Pittsburgh has been losing population for decades ... and as is oft lamented in the press, it's the young people who are leaving. Since young people are also the ones who commit most of the violent crimes, maybe a lot of our thugs are moving to Houston.

Regardless of what caused violence to decrease, I think that everyone has reason to celebrate Pittsburgh's status as one of America's safest cities. c

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