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Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Conclusion

crime century social blacks

The discussion has identified several patterns in Western criminal behavior. First, evolving social and legal institutions in the West have contributed basically to a long-term, secular decline in violent offenses—a decline in homicide from fourteenth-century London to seventeenth-century Surrey and Sussex; a decline in violent offenses from 1824 to 1928 in Boston; and sizable declines in Bergen, Norway, and nineteenth-century London and Stockholm undoubtedly owe much to the gradual emergence of civic culture and rational legal institutions in the West.

The forerunner of modern legal institutions in England appeared first during the Middle Ages as the "King's Peace"–a domestic peace enforced by the King himself. Serious violations of the law were taken as violations of the King's Peace and were tried and punished by the King's royal courts. It was not possible, however, to institute a system of law everywhere at once by decree. Subduing violence depended upon a maturation of public culture so that individuals were willing to submit their personal quarrels to the king and his officers. Justice had to be legitimate, strong, and widespread to guarantee that those who accepted its authority would not be subsequently plundered by those who did not. As people recognized the fairness and justice of the royal courts, the legitimacy of legal solutions was increasingly accepted, and violence became less common in both public and private life. Under the impact of evolving legal institutions, a civic temper took hold among the English, and as this civic temper gained broader sway, serious crime and particularly violent crime receded. Acceptance of the King's Peace was the beginning of a gradual process growing out of the public's growing awareness of the efficacy of justice.

At the same time other forces were at work undermining the civilizing effects of royal justice and its institutions. As English society evolved from a folk-communal society to an urban-commercial society and later to an urban-industrial one, legal institutions displaced other important institutions in sanctioning deviance. The expanding jurisdiction of the criminal courts at first drove crime rates higher, but as we have seen, when legal institutions took firm root crime rates began to shrink.

A second conclusion focuses on the social bases of criminality. During much of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, crime trends and particularly property crimes were closely attuned to improving economic conditions in America. Moreover, criminality as recorded by the courts and police was largely a working-class or lower-class phenomenon; relatively few middle-class individuals were implicated in common law violations. By the turn of the nineteenth century economic crime by the middle classes was drawing keen attention, but it had not yet been addressed comprehensively in the law.

During the 1960s and beyond, however, the close association between poverty and crime weakened. Prosperity was widespread and living standards were improving generally. But criminality rose even more rapidly, especially among the wealthy classes. It is now apparent that the values of broad segments of society changed during the 1960s and that new styles of behavior arose, some of which violated the criminal law. The changing crime patterns of the 1960s challenged economically based explanations of crime that had dominated the thinking of policymakers and criminologists for decades. Organized criminal groups became a major factor in the crime picture of Western nations.

A historical survey of crime patterns provides an excellent perspective against which to interpret modern developments. Present-day crime is relatively slight when compared with earlier times, and this improvement depends as much upon an emergence of civic culture as on instruments of justice. Such a survey also provides a basis for projecting future trends, though caution must prevail. Conditions that were important in the past may well prove insignificant in the future.

Although the levels of crime in the West may decline in the new millennium, the most prominent forms of crime in coming years will continue to be those spawned by youthful expressionism—gangs, illegal drugs, and violence. Crimes of protest will also continue, though probably not with the same intensity as in the recent past. Youth culture is a permanent feature of the modern world, and the implications of this fact for criminality are inescapable. A significant segment of the youth will continue to engage in criminal behavior, but skillful management of a prosperous economy could mean lower overall crime rates among both blacks and youths in the twenty-first century.

The assimilation of blacks in broader society has begun, and a black middle class with significant economic and political impact has emerged so that crime by blacks may well continue to moderate in coming years. Indeed, the incidence of black crime has already slackened. In 1976 47.5 percent of violent crimes were committed by blacks, but in 1997 the corresponding figure was 41.1 percent (F.B.I., 1976–1997). Since 1976 the increase in violent crime by blacks has not kept pace with that of the society as a whole. In the United States the groups that have been heaviest contributors to criminality since the 1960s—young people and blacks—will lead a gradual decline in the coming decades. Indeed, between 1994 and 1998 violent juvenile crime dropped 19.2 percent (F.B.I., 1998, Table 34, p. 216), and continued declines in the future seemed likely. Violent crime rates could fall 10 to 15 percent from present levels by 2010.

Young women, like blacks, are intensely involved in a male-dominated youth culture, and expressionism among women is not uncommon. The expressionism of young women assumes a distinctive form, one that focuses heavily on sexual liberation and male-female relationships (Carns); mature women, on the other hand, are more independent, less imitative of male culture, less focused on male relationships, and more concerned with asserting their social and economic equality. How these differences evolve, as well as how they translate into crime, remain to be seen. Further increases in minor drug violations and larceny, along with continued instability in family relationships, seem likely for women as a whole. But female crime is only a small part of the overall picture, and increases here, even if in percentage terms, will not alter significantly the prediction of an overall 15 to 20 percent reduction in serious crime.

All the other components contributing to criminality in American cities, such as organized crime, professional crime, and immigration patterns should continue in much the same way as in the 1990s. Thus, declines in criminality projected for blacks and youths should contribute to an overall reduction of criminal activity in the United States by about 15 percent. Cities with heavy Hispanic immigrations, such as Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles, will show declines smaller than those in cities like Minneapolis or San Jose, which have little Hispanic immigration. Added to these adjustments in the continued long-term integration of the underclass into the urban social fabric, which will also contribute to a slow decline in lower-class crime. Social dislocations such as severe depressions or political divisions will aggravate the crime problem, but the crime pattern of the nineteenth century, in which economic conditions in the lower classes broadly affected the level of crime in society, is being replaced by a pattern more closely affected by the values and morale of distinctive social and political groups. Some of these groups—women, blacks, and youths—are influenced more by their general social prospects than by their immediate economic condition. Accordingly, economic explanations of crime advanced by theorists in the 1970s will be of less value in the 1980s than theories focusing on the existential and social conditions of groups central to the crime problem.

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