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In the early 1990s, U.S. crime rates had been on a steep upward climb since the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. The crack-cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s added fuel to the fire, and handgun-related homicides more than doubled between 1985 and 1990. That year, murders peaked in New York City with 2,245 killings. Politicians embraced tough-on-crime platforms and enacted harshly punitive policies. Experts warned the worst could be yet to come.
Then crime rates went down. And then they kept going down.
By decade’s end, the homicide rate plunged 42 percent nationwide. Violent crime decreased by one-third. What turned into a precipitous decline started later in some areas and took longer in others. But it happened everywhere: in each region of the country, in cities large and small, in rural and urban areas alike. In the Northeast, which reaped the largest benefits, the homicide rate was halved. Murders plummeted by 75 percent in New York City alone as the city entered the new millennium.
The trend kept ticking downward from there, more slowly and with some fluctuations, to the present day. By virtually any metric, Americans now live in one of the least violent times in the nation’s history.
But the forces that drove the Great American Crime Decline remain a mystery. Theories abound among sociologists, economists, and political scientists about the causes, with some hypotheses stronger than others. But there’s no real consensus among scholars about what caused one of the largest social shifts in modern American history.
So, what happened?
A variety of possibilities are explored - none explains everything.