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Historical Trends in Violence

There you are, a respectful, law-abiding citizen, but the world is a violent place, and it seems to be getting worse. Is that an accurate perception? Actually, particularly in the United States, violence has been in a state of decline over a period of centuries. Crime dramas notwithstanding, you live in a much safer place than you might have hundreds of years ago.

Violence in early America

The fact is that colonial America was an extremely violent place compared to your modern experience. Rates of homicide were as much as seven times the rate of the present day. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, including inconsistent treatment by government officials who were at time thousands of miles away. Moreover, historical attitudes toward violence in general, and which acts may call for violent retribution, were far more lenient. Since this was a situation common to many parts of the world, rates were far higher in a number of countries. There weren’t any online criminology degrees to help people learn right and wrong in the law.

As the centuries progressed, rates of significant interpersonal violence (e.g. homicide, rape) dropped. Apart from a fairly dramatic increase in the mid-19th century, rates continued to decrease as governments developed a stronger commitment to equality, especially where wealth is concerned. The strength of government in general also improved, and the creation of better institutions to study, interpret law and judge and punish criminals led to more consistent applications of public policy.

20th century fluctuation

The rate of homicide in America from the beginning of the 20th century to the present follows a pattern similar to a sine wave. The numbers rise higher in the 1920s and 1930s, much lower between 1940 and 1960, rising again in the 1980s, with a precipitous drop around the end of the century. Some explanations for the high plateaus in murderous violence may relate to armed violence surrounding Prohibition in the 1920s, and crack cocaine in the 1980s.

But why did crime continue to drop in the 1990s? It is not as clear as you might think. Longer prison sentences and the availability of television news may have served as a warning to potential evildoers. It could also be as simple as the strong economy the U.S. enjoyed at the end of the century. More recently, some have tied this dip in violence to the influx of immigrants. Evidence suggests that cities and neighborhoods with high immigrant populations have had the most rapid drops in interpersonal violence.

Present rates

Violent crime has been dropping fairly steadily since then. This decrease is seemingly worldwide, and across many demographics, including the young. The Centers for Disease Control reported that, in 2010, youths were half as likely to commit violence as they were in 1994. Considering the fact that violence is a significant source of nonfatal injuries among the young, such a drop is encouraging. And may make you feel safer about walking to your car at night.

Punishment as deterrent

Watching televised trials and reading about the surprisingly long sentences some criminals will get, some say, affects the nature and severity of crimes that average people like you might commit. But given that there are checks in place to serve as judicial oversight, this may be more symbolic than accurate. Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro has been convicted on 937 counts ranging from rape to aggravated murder. He faces a life sentence plus 1,000 years. His is not the longest sentence that a criminal has faced in a U.S. court, by far. Many state laws offer opportunity for parole based on a set minimum number of years, not necessarily a fraction of a convict’s sentence. That makes sentences of 1,000 or 10,000 years less of an immediate threat and more of a publicizing maneuver, a cautionary tale to anyone who may lose control and seek to decimate a great number of people.

It is interesting how the application of law and logic has changed the landscape of American interpersonal communication. Two hundred years ago, an argument could easily have ended in bloodshed. Serious crime still happens, but these days it is much more random and less mainstream.

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