February 19, 2005

Where Did The Criminals Go?

Maybe this is old news, but it's kind of fascinating. While doing research for something else entirely this afternoon, I stumbled across an interesting paper by economists Steven Levitt and John Donohue, arguing that Roe v. Wade, more than any other factor, explains the sudden and very rapid nationwide decline in crime during the 1990s.

The argument makes intuitive sense, for sure: Abortion prevents unwanted births; unwanted births are more likely to become criminals; so the post-Roe abortion wave prevented these likely criminals from ever being born. The people in question, note, would have come of age in the early '90s—exactly when the national crime rate plummeted—and there are a few other correlations (states that legalized abortion earlier than 1973 saw their crime rates plummet earlier; states with high post-Roe abortion rates saw greater declines in crime rates) that do make this look like more than a funny coincidence. At any rate, it certainly seems stronger than any of the alternative explanations (increased incarceration, the aging society, better police tactics, more police, better economy, etc.)

Googling around, it looks like pro-life groups threw a fit about all this—I assume there was a lot of fanfare and I just didn't hear about it because I didn't follow the news at all in 2000—but of course nothing in the study justifies abortion. (If Donohue and Levitt are right, you could've gotten the same effect with better contraception methods.) By the way, here's a kooky parallel. Nicolas Ceausescu, former dictator of Rumania, outlawed abortion in 1966 and forced people to have pregnancies via tax policy. Just 23 years later, when Ceausescu's regime fell, all of those unwanted and forced pregnancies were entering their prime (i.e. peak potential criminal) years of life and perhaps helped spark the rather excessive chaos and disorder of that year. (Ceausescu and his wife were the only Communist leaders actually lynched and executed, after all.) Probably just a coincidence, though.
-- Brad Plumer 11:04 PM || ||