Saturday, February 17, 2007

Are cell phones the reason for the 90s crime decline?

Steve Sailer has suggested that the spread of cell phones in the 1990s helps explain the concurrent drop in crime since youths contemplating a life of crime might think twice if witnesses can easily call the police during the commission of a crime. I found this graph which shows steady growth in phone ownership in America during the 1990s, especially after 1992. Robbery, for example, peaked in 1991 and dropped until around 2000, so there is a rough correspondence here. Plus, my impression is that young people--those most likely to be victims and, presumably, witnesses of crime--were the first to jump on the mobile phone craze.
Roughly half of Americans now have a mobile phone, so one could argue that if their availability were important we should have seen a drop that continued until the present day, instead of the observed plateau. But it might be that beyond, say, a 20-25% cell phone prevalence rate, additional phones would not make much difference. Only 4 random people would need to witness a crime for one to have a phone handy. Such a risk might be too high.


  1. Anonymous11:59 PM

    The theory predicts that the fall in crime should be more dramatic in those categories of crime more sensitive to phone use by a witness. This pattern would also be evidence that suggests causation.

  2. Anonymous12:03 AM

    Seems to me that embezzlement would be particularly insensitive to phone use.

  3. Anonymous7:20 AM

    Mobile phone ownership has also created two new crimes. The stealing of mobile phones and 'happy slapping' the filming of otherwise pointless assaults on mobile phones.

  4. There hasn't been much cell phone inspired violent crime in the U.S., unlike in Britain where muggings to steal cell phones became a big problem.

  5. Anonymous9:26 PM

    If this were the case, the reduction would be most marked in so-called "contact crime" (robbery, assault, etc.). Property crime, however, has fallen at a greater rate than violent crime in Europe and N. America.

    Furthermore, (if memory serves) cell-phones only reached a critical mass in the late nineties, precisely when the decline in crime began to fall or even reverse itself (at least in some categories).

    Changing technology has had some interesting repercussions in the criminal realm (improved printing and copying have lead to an explosion in counterfeiting) but this explanation seems specious.

  6. Anonymous5:36 PM

    I was the 7:20 anon above, I should have pointed out that Im British.

    I think the take up of mobiles in the UK is or was much greater than in the US. I worked with an American (from SF, not the middle of nowhere) 2000/2001, he was struck by the level of mobile ownership & use - all but universal here by that stage - compared to back home.

    Dont quite know what the crime implications of that are though...

  7. Anonymous6:38 AM

    I stopped a guy beating up a homeless person (who'd insulted his girlfriend) by saying I'd call the cops. I didn't even have my phone with me. I was standing at a safe distance though.

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  10. Seems to me that embezzlement would be particularly insensitive to phone use.

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