One other factor in the crime recession could be the economy. Since Americans are doing much better than they were in 1991, could that explain the corresponding drop in crime?

"The economy matters to some extent," answers Crutchfield, "but it's not as straightforward as some would like to believe."

Crutchfield has spent much of his career investigating the ties of crime to income levels and the economy. "A better economy might have some little effect, but it is not true that a rising tide has brought up all ships," he warns.

He points to the 1930s, when the economy plummeted, but so did the crime rate, and to the 1960s, where the economy soared, as did crime.

It is not the employment rate that matters so much as the types of jobs available, Crutchfield explains. "For young adults in particular, it makes a difference if you have a good, family- wage job that you can build a future on."

Another factor is the kind of work your family and friends hold. "If you are a marginal job holder and those around you are marginal job holders, the chance of criminal behavior is higher," he explains.

Demographics, police tactics, tougher penalties, gun control, prevention programs, economics--no matter what the causes, the three criminologists say we should enjoy the calm while we can. "By the end of the century, you should expect some gradual upturns," warns Weis.

"My guess is that, all things being equal, crime will go up in a few years," adds Crutchfield. "We should use this period to figure out what works and what doesn't work--outside of the rhetoric."

Bridges agrees. "We have to attack the causes of crime and those causes will not be eliminated in two or three years," he maintains. "Our society faces a difficult challenge: finding a long-term solution to the crime problem while protecting the safety of its citizens. We have to do both at the same time, and we're not." * Tom Griffin is editor of Columns.

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