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Jobless rate up, but crime down: What gives?

Americans, take solace: While your chances of landing a job these days might not be great, you’re also less likely to be murdered, or robbed or to have your car stolen.

The rate of major crimes in the U.S. continues to drop – even during the recent recession and its aftermath – and crime experts aren’t sure why.

"I am surprised by the overall decline in both violent and property crime during and since the recent recession. I’ve studied crime trends in relation to economic conditions for some time, and the 2008-09 recession is the first time since WW II that crime rates have not risen during a substantial downturn in the economy,” says Richard Rosenfeld, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and past president of the American Society of Criminology.

“What’s pushing it down is the mystery meat in the recipe of recent years,” says Franklin Zimring, a criminologist and UC Berkeley law professor who has written several books on crime-related topics.

According to recently released FBI crime statistics, the number of violent crimes -- murder and non-negligent homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- reported in the first six months of 2011 declined 6.4 percent compared with the first six months of 2010. The number of property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft) decreased 3.7 percent for the same time frame.

The report is based on information from more than 12,500 law enforcement agencies and shows the continuation of a downward trend in crime that began in 2008.

It’s also part of a broader, longer-term trend: Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate fell 51 percent and property crimes dropped 64 percent. Crime rates decreased significantly during the 1990s before flattening out at the start of the new century.

The statistical trend is puzzling and not easily explained.

More offenders were being put behind bars and the U.S. economy boomed in the 1990s, so maybe that had something to do with the decline, Zimring notes. But then, how do you explain the decline in the past three or so years, when incarceration rates have flattened out and the economy has gone to hell?

“By both the left- and right-wing leading indicators we should be in a lot of trouble – except (we’re) not,” Zimring says. “Everything we thought we knew are deeply challenged by events by the last three years.”

Rosenfeld thinks smarter policing has contributed in many places (including New York and Los Angeles). But he says it cannot explain the entire decline, since in most places policing is much the same as it was 10 years ago. 

And tougher sentencing isn’t the answer either, since national imprisonment rates are also on the decline, albeit modestly. 

“One overlooked economic factor is inflation, or rather the very low levels of inflation during the past few years,” Rosenfeld wrote in an email to msnbc.com. “High rates of inflation are connected with high crime rates, so when inflation drops we should expect corresponding declines in crime, in the first instance property crime.”

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