Why have burglaries declined?

by on March 20, 2008 at 10:23 am in Law | Permalink

Eric H. points to the question of why burglaries have declined steadily, when other crime rates have been more volatile.  Here is one bit:

Criminologists have a lot of theories why burglaries are so different…"If you’re going to do a burglary, you need to have some buyers," Mathis says. "Everybody has everything now."

Mathis says there’s just too much on the street already. Everyone he knows already has a digital camera, iPod knockoffs and pirated DVDs shipped in from China. "And if it’s not new, a lot of people don’t even want to fool with it," Mathis says. Forget about last year’s video games and old laptops, Mathis says. And don’t even bring a VCR or boxy TV to the street.

"You can get a TV for nothing almost," he says. "People are giving them away now."

In other words, we have fewer burglaries because of low wages in China.  You’ll note that the standard Baumol-Bowen model of the cost-disease predicts an ongoing decline in burglaries.  Goods become cheaper over time, and thus not worth stealing, while services grow more expensive over time.  It is usually harder to steal services so burglary rates should fall.

The article also cites the decline of heavy drug use, better locks and deadbolts, and more widespread use of locks, plus less cash left around the house.  Some experts cite greater neighborhood vigilance.  Note that robberies are not falling in similar fashion, which suggests that criminals prefer to get the victim away from home turf advantage.

Here is further information.  British burglary is falling too.

Peter March 20, 2008 at 10:31 am

Note that robberies are not falling in similar fashion, which suggests that criminals prefer to get the victim away from home turf advantage.

People committing robberies are generally after cash rather than property.

Mike Fladlien March 20, 2008 at 10:38 am

could you steal a service by stealing someone’s identity?

8 March 20, 2008 at 11:17 am

Digital crime leaves digital evidence. The goods can be moved quickly, even instantly. And there is no physical break-in and no risk of confronting the victim, which could add assault/manslaughter charges.

Paul March 20, 2008 at 11:27 am

Consumer trends are clearly driving up home burglary business
costs, while lowering larceny and armed robbery costs.
Stealing and fencing a 64-inch plasma screen TV or 12-burner
Aaga stove is high-risk and relatively low-return. And with
credit/debit cards supplanting cash as our main purchasing
medium, the typical unoccupied house doesnt offer much
instant return.

You get higher and more certain ROI by mugging a pedestrian
for his/her Ipod or Visa, or by hitting parked cars for GPS,
phones, video games, etc. Home invasion is a potentially
lucrative twist on mugging, but requires signifcant market
research, organization, and operational know-how.

My views reflect trend observations by friends in the local
criminal justice scene. I’d love to see an economist gather
and analyze some data on this.

Peter March 20, 2008 at 11:38 am

You get higher and more certain ROI … by hitting parked cars for GPS,
phones, video games, etc.

Car break-ins are a less risky venture than home burglaries because the penalties for getting caught are much lighter in most places.

Home invasion is a potentially lucrative twist on mugging, but requires signifcant market research, organization, and operational know-how.

As I understand it, most home invasions target people who are involved in the drug trade. Truly “innocent” victims are uncommon.

The Owner's Manual March 20, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Uhm, guns, *cough* castle doctrine *cough*, dead perps, film at eleven…

Henry March 20, 2008 at 1:53 pm

Cisco wrote:

I wish somebody could figure out what was the effect of introducing debit cards in the rates of burglaries and robberies of commercial establishments. Its seems to me there is not just less spare money around the house, there’s less paper money in the cash register. That should have some marginal effect, right?

I lived in Mexico for several years, when I got there, most people got paid cash (not checks, cash), even top managers; there was some law about it. By the late 90’s it was changed so workers could open a no-fee account where they could draw their money using a Debit card. One of the reasons they did that (besides lobbying from the banks) was that bands of criminals would rob workers as they were waiting for the bus to go home on payday, and it worked, that type of crime almost disapeared.

However, there was huge increase in “Express” abductions, where criminals will pick up their victims before midnight take him to an ATM to withdraw the maximum daily ammount, wait after midnight, do it again and release them. One advise I was given when going to Mexico City was to carry a single credit/debit card and make sure you knew the PIN.

David R. Henderson March 20, 2008 at 2:03 pm

Neat point, Tyler. Two additional ones. First, the value of goods is declining relative to the value of time. So it’s not just the services that are increasing in value but hard to steal; it’s also that the value of the potential thief’s time has risen.

Second, what a sad comment at the end of the article. The former thief felt bad because someone had stolen his camera but not left behind the valuable film of his father. And the thief had never thought about whether he had done the same to anyone. Well, if he’s like the guy who stole my tape deck that had my favorite tape on it, including a radio show where I was at my peak performance, he did.

Aldo March 20, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Tom said, “Exactly. We’ll soon have D.C. to study the effects of more legal guns in the house. I bet crime goes down.”

Careful there. If increased crime rates are tied to economic troubles, and we’re headed into a recession, then you could get more burglaries in D.C. just as you get more guns in the homes. The highly misleading numbers will be on the side of gun control advocates; just as they might be on the right-to-arms side if guns became more available as the economy was booming.

Don’t count your chickens until you’re sure they’re packin’ heat.

Daniel Klein March 20, 2008 at 4:42 pm

I’m surprised there’s not mention of cell phones, as in those in the pockets of passerbys who see someone jimmying a window . . .

mgs March 20, 2008 at 8:59 pm

I think low wages in China are only part of the story. Look at Craigslist as well. Why buy a stolen 27″ tv when you can buy a used one legitimately for $25.

shecky March 20, 2008 at 10:48 pm

re: guns,

Would this apply to Britain, too?

JF Cote March 21, 2008 at 9:16 am

Having stereos taken from both of my cars this year had me thinking along the same line. What in the hell were these guys thinking? One was 10 years old and the other was just the standard CD player on a Honda Civic? What could they sell these for?

albatross March 21, 2008 at 2:00 pm

It’s interesting to ask: what does it look like when a large set of criminals suddenly find themselves put out of business? The obvious example of this in the US is the end of prohibition, other examples involve folks selling pornography over the time that this stopped being illegal or the laws stopped being enforced.

I’ve heard the claim that the electronic engine locks (“interruptor” or some such) in modern cars had made it all but impossible to hot-wire cars, and that one result has been more burglaries done just to get the keys (kick in the front door, grab the keys if you see them, then drive away in the car).

What would happen if technological changes just made violent crime unworkable, really quickly. Would the guys who go around mugging people go hungry? Would they turn up at McDonald’s looking for work? Or would they try to push into a new line of criminal work, if they could find one?

Pete March 24, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Multiple factors at play here

1. More apartments living, its simply a harder to steal from apartmenst. You’ve generally got to get in. Then the neighbours will be home etc.

2. More home alarms

3. Stuff is woth less all the time, especially resale.

From a peronal perspective, I don’t bother insuring my home anymore and have furnished good but old stereos and tv from work colleagues cast offs.

Fletcher King March 25, 2008 at 11:42 am

Obvious burglaries are going to decline in the future of at least our country. We only become more and more civilized every day giving each individual with any kind of wit about him the opportunity to provide for his self in a legal manner. Along with the decline in burglary if think that drug use is declining for the same reason and together they will pull each other down. The low priced goods that china sends us also have a great effect on the amount of burglary because it is more hassle to steal an average target from somebody’s home than what you would actually end up getting out of it for a street price. I also believe that the average individual today will stand up for himself and protect himself more so than twenty years ago. Most people do have much better security measures on their houses, and many probably have a gun that they wood use in a second against an unwanted burglar. All of these elements combined is what I believe I bringing down the number of burglaries.
Fletcher King

Alan Golder April 4, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Burglary may be going down, but crime will always be good fun.

Tangurena April 7, 2008 at 6:33 pm

>I’ve heard the claim that the electronic engine locks (“interruptor” or some such) in modern cars had made it all but impossible to hot-wire cars, and that one result has been more burglaries done just to get the keys (kick in the front door, grab the keys if you see them, then drive away in the car).
>So perhaps auto theft decreases as cars become more affordable, at least excluding the high end.

Carjacking didn’t exist before these locks got sophisticated. When GM introduced the PassKey system (I worked for GM at the time), most of the earliest thefts were tow aways or swapping keys at dealerships (take a test drive, and hand back a different key than starts the car, come back later) and the PassKey system was merely a resistor pellet in the shank of the key.

Auto theft hasn’t dropped due to anti-theft measures. Like fixing old plumbing, the new leaks appear in different places than it appeared before the countermeasures went into play.

jim December 9, 2008 at 3:36 am

^welll, even if they only got 15- 20 dollars a piece for those, that is still 30 or 40 dollars made in probably about 3 minutes work.

When someone is broke and doesn’t want to work… well you get the idea. The way that you evaluate risk is likely a lot different than a broke drug addict.

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