Rise And Fall Of Violent Crime Rates Linked to Leaded Gasoline

by lizard

There is an article by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones that should be required reading for everyone, titled America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead.

Here is the basic assertion: the rise of violent crime rates in the 60’s and 70’s, and the subsequent decline in the 90’s, looks to be causally related to the prevalence of lead in gasoline used after WWII. The evidence supporting this assertion is quite strong. Read the article.

This article, if it gets the attention it deserves, could represent a paradigm shift in how we look at crime rates and the allocation of resources to reduce crime. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

At the same time that we should reassess the low level of attention we pay to the remaining hazards from lead, we should probably also reassess the high level of attention we’re giving to other policies. Chief among these is the prison-building boom that started in the mid-’70s. As crime scholar William Spelman wrote a few years ago, states have “doubled their prison populations, then doubled them again, increasing their costs by more than $20 billion per year”—money that could have been usefully spent on a lot of other things. And while some scholars conclude that the prison boom had an effect on crime, recent research suggests that rising incarceration rates suffer from diminishing returns: Putting more criminals behind bars is useful up to a point, but beyond that we’re just locking up more people without having any real impact on crime. What’s more, if it’s true that lead exposure accounts for a big part of the crime decline that we formerly credited to prison expansion and other policies, those diminishing returns might be even more dramatic than we believe. We probably overshot on prison construction years ago; one doubling might have been enough. Not only should we stop adding prison capacity, but we might be better off returning to the incarceration rates we reached in the mid-’80s.

If this shift happens, a sociological theory used aggressively by politicians like Rudy Giuliani called the broken window theory may finally get the criticism it deserves.

The link above is to the city of Missoula’s official website, where the application of the broken window theory by local law enforcement is proudly trumpeted:

The term “Broken Windows” comes from the metaphor used to describe this concept.

“If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge.”

This theory says that the little things matter.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani adopted the Broken Windows Theory and implemented a community-policing strategy focused on order maintenance. Graffiti was washed nightly from subway cars, subway turnstile jumpers arrested and trash picked up among other things. Minor, seemingly insignificant, quality-of-life crimes were found to be the tipping point for violent crime. When New York “windows” were repaired, crime dropped.

The Missoula Police Department has made the Broken Windows theory an integral part of our law enforcement strategy, with the emphasis on maintaining our high standard standard of living we currently enjoy today.

One of the localized consequences of the alleged success of this “theory” was Missoula’s city council passing an ordinance banning panhandling aggressive solicitation back in August of 2009:

The ordinance prohibits begging in an “aggressive manner,” such as touching a person without asking, following someone being solicited and using violence. It prohibits telling lies to get money, and it also bans soliciting in some public places, such as near ATMs and within six feet of an entrance to a building.

Councilors voted 7-4 to adopt the main ordinance, with opponents saying it appeared the rules wouldn’t be equally enforced among all solicitors. They didn’t want to pass a law that inadvertently banned the kinds of solicitations many community members support, such as high schoolers holding up signs for free car washes. The following council members voted against the ordinance: Jason Wiener, Pam Walzer, Stacy Rye and Marilyn Marler. Councilman Bob Jaffe was absent.

Wiener, who represents the downtown area, said he could back the rules that clamp down on aggressive acts. But he suggested striking the portion of the law that outlines the places and distances where people may and may not solicit – aggressively or otherwise.

He said with a “wink and a nod,” it appeared that part of the ordinance was going to be selectively enforced. And the new rules mean even peaceful people can’t ask for anything at all in some places, like 20 feet from from an outdoor patio or cafe.

Understanding that lead appears to be a significant environmental factor in the increase in violent crime rates across the country doesn’t take away from the need to address violent crime when it occurs, but I do hope a better understanding of root causes will inform future social responses we, as a community and a country, take.

Last October, the Missoulian reported that our local jail is consistently full due, in part, to our new municipal judge’s abandonment of treatment courts. Continuing on this path will inevitably lead to the need to build a bigger jail, and doing that will require lots of money.

If that is the path we choose, I have a suggestion how we could generate some of the money. Aggressively enforce open container laws across the socioeconomic strata of Missoula.

That would mean instead of just “transients” getting tickets they can’t/won’t pay (leading to expensive time spent in jail) Missoulians walking around with plastic cups of wine on First Fridays and tailgating Griz fans can be ticketed as well.

Yeah, like that would happen.

  1. lizard19

    I may not get to a poetry post this week, so instead I have distilled the above post into a three stanza poem that I’m tentatively calling FIGHTING CRIME WITH NURSERY RHYMES:

    broken windows
    dirty bums
    righteous Rudy’s
    police-state thumb

    press down hard
    build more jails
    stop and frisk
    watch, surveil

    to keep you safe
    to stay secure
    bar the windows
    lock your doors

  2. Elizabeth

    When are they going to rename this site “4&20Lizards”?

    • lizard19

      I don’t have any control over the posting frequency of my fellow bloggers here, but I do wish they would write more.

  3. Steve W

    The most interesting part of the article in many ways is the part that talks about how difficult this concept is to accept for people who make their money fighting crime.

    I wonder how we overcome that resistance?

  4. JC

    Thanks for posting this liz. I read it the other day, and if I would have had time, I would have done a writeup. I appreciate the tie-in with local issues!

    If the MJ article gets any sort of critical look by the broader community, it could provide important clues on how we as a society can create a better future for the next generation. As I often said elsewhere, the roots of many of our societal problems lies in early childhood development. Add lead in as another critical component contributing to violence later in life.


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    […] credited for the reduction of crime rates New York experienced in the 90′s. Last January, I wrote a post highlighting a fascinating Mother Jones article correlating drops in crime rates with the removal […]

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    […] article for Mother Jones examining the connection between crime rates and leaded gasoline. I wrote this post looking at the potential impact of Drum’s article on a social theory of policing that has […]

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    […] are plenty of theories why, but nothing conclusive. If I had to go with one, though, it would be the decline of lead exposure. They say correlation is not causation, but there this a ton of data backing up this theory. From […]

  4. 4 Declining Crime Rates Vs. Media Fear Factor | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] are plenty of theories why, but nothing conclusive. If I had to go with one, though, it would be the decline of lead exposure. They say correlation is not causation, but there this a ton of data backing up this theory. From […]

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