2. Typologies and Patterns of Crime

2.8 Crime Patterns Over Time

Dr. Jon Heidt

In the 1950s, crime rates were relatively low, and people felt relatively safe; economic opportunities were easily accessible and there was new-found wealth in North American society. Starting in the 1960s, crime rates started to climb along with levels of social and political unrest (Tonry, 2004). During this time, crime patterns changed significantly; specifically, household theft and burglaries dramatically increased for two main reasons. First, more homes were left unattended during the day because more women were working away from home and going to school. Second, there was a proliferation of high-value, lightweight household appliances and other smaller electronic items because of technological innovation. Theft became easier, more profitable, and more attractive to people (Cohen & Felson, 1979).

Rates of most crimes increased throughout the 1980s, and then rather suddenly, in the 1990s, they started to decrease significantly. Numerous explanations for these decreases were provided, including obvious ones like stricter gun-control laws, more jobs, and economic opportunities. However, some others such as increases in access to abortion and the reduction of lead in the environment, may not be so obvious. Some have argued that greater access to abortions and other forms of birth control have led to a drop in unwanted and neglected children who are at greater risk for involvement in gangs and other criminal activities. Regular exposure to and ingestion of lead is known to cause developmental and cognitive issues, especially at early ages—these issues can result in a higher number of individuals at risk for criminal activities. Consequently, some believe that policies such as the widespread adoption of unleaded gasoline across the automobile industry, which significantly reduced the amount of lead commonly found in the environment, may contribute to lower rates of criminal behaviour (Blumstein & Wallman, 2006; Farrell, 2013).

A significant part of this crime rate drop was due to a massive shift in crime patterns. For example, during the 1990s, the internet grew at a staggering pace, and this created many new opportunities for crime and changed how people committed crime (Byrne & Kimball, 2017). Face-to-face robberies to obtain money and items were replaced with more low-risk activities that involved cons and scams that were much more difficult to detect and prosecute. Some argue that the internet and other technological shifts (e.g., the proliferation of cellphones) have increased the dark figure of crime while driving official crime rates down (Hall, 2012). To illustrate:  Why would someone steal a DVD from Wal-Mart when they can illegally download it with much less risk of getting caught?

In recent years, both Canada and the United States have seen some increases in certain types of crime (mostly property-related), which may be partly attributable to growing political and social unrest. This is illustrated by considering the numerous social movements that have emerged in the last decade (e.g., Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, protests against logging and pipelines, conspiracy groups such as QAnon, and the proliferation of Right-Wing militia groups). Similar trends were seen in the 1960s and this era too was a time of great conflict and social change that saw increases in certain forms of crime and violence. The parallels between these two eras lend credence to the principle suggesting that crime occurs in cycles over long periods of time (Zimring, 2007).

COVID-19 and Crime Patterns

Few events will happen in our lifetimes that will have the monumental impact of the emergence of COVID-19. Because our response to the pandemic required lockdown orders in many Western countries, this pandemic affected almost every aspect of daily life and our routine activities on a societal level, which has had a huge effect on patterns of crime. Indeed, some have referred to this as “the largest criminological experiment in history” (Stickle & Felson, 2020). Initial data suggested there was little change in serious violent crimes, while a small reduction in residential break and enter and motor vehicle thefts in some cities was found (Ashby, 2020). Bowman and Gallupe (2020) argue that these decreases in certain crime rates were driven by drops in crimes typically committed in groups. At the same time, rates of violent offences committed alone, such as homicide and sexual and domestic assault, remained largely unchanged during the pandemic. Many speculate that rates of drug use (including alcohol consumption) also spiked during this period, and these changes could have affected crime rates and patterns. It is too early to understand the overall effect that the pandemic has had on crime patterns, but this will surely be a period that receives a great deal of attention from researchers.        


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jon Heidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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