In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crime Trends

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Measurement and Methodological Issues
  • Historical Trends
  • Contemporary Trends
  • Current and Anticipated Future Trends

Criminology Crime Trends
Eric P. Baumer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0058


Although there are a few rich historical studies of crime trends and some research on both cross-national and American post–World War II trends, the amount of scholarly attention devoted to this topic increased substantially during the 1990s and 2000s. The increased volume of research and public discourse on crime trends during the past two decades has followed the well-publicized sharp spikes in youth gun violence during the mid- to late 1980s in America. Attention to crime trends has grown in particular on the heels of a widespread and significant crime decrease in several parts of the world that began in the early to mid-1990s and appears to have continued in many nations. The existing literature has documented trends in homicide during the past several centuries and described in detail trends for a variety of other violent and property crimes over the last half of the 20th century. There is less research directed at explaining the observed changes in crime rates. The explanatory research has covered a wide variety of issues, but has focused most heavily on the response of crime rates to levels of incarceration, policing, and economic adversity. The explanatory research that has been done does not permit definitive conclusions to be drawn, but does point to several factors thought to be highly relevant to shaping observed crime trends.

General Overviews

Much of the literature on crime trends has been published in the form of journal articles, but there are a few general overviews that are essential reading. Excellent treatments of historical crime trends in Europe, America, and selected other nations can be found in Gurr 1981, Lane 1997, and Johnson and Monkkonen 1996. Gurr 1981 documents trends in homicide, assault, and robbery for several European nations dating from the 13th century, and for America from the mid-19th century through the 1970s. Johnson and Monkkonen 1996 provide some additional coverage of trends for this period, coupled with more detailed explanation of the observed trends. Lane 1997 provides a detailed treatment of the prevalence and nature of homicide in America, along with the social and legal reactions to lethal violence from the precolonial period through the late 1980s. Cooney 2003 adds to the literature by discussing the changing forms that violence has taken historically. Blumstein and Wallman 2006, Goldberger and Rosenfeld 2008, LaFree 1998 and Zimring 2006 provide comprehensive treatments of contemporary American crime trends. LaFree 1998 focuses on describing and explaining the dramatic increase in serious crimes observed in America during the 1960s and 1970s. The chapters in Blumstein and Wallman 2006 cover a variety of dimensions of the 1990s crime drop, a theme that Zimring 2006 expands on with special attention to the crime decline experienced in New York City. Goldberger and Rosenfeld 2008 summarize the accumulated knowledge on recent American crime trends from 1980 through 2005. With respect to contemporary trends in other nations, Eisner 2008 is a particularly informative source with detailed and updated figures for homicide rates across several European nations dating in some cases from the 13th century through the 1990s.

  • Blumstein, Alfred, and Joel Wallman, eds. 2006. The crime drop in America. Rev. ed. Cambridge Studies in Criminology. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An edited volume that provides a thorough description of US crime trends during the 1990s and extensive discussions of the most common explanations for those trends. A must-read on the what and why of the 1990s crime drop in America.

  • Cooney, Mark. 2003. The privatization of violence. Criminology 41.4:1377–1406.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb01023.x

    A detailed look at ways in which interpersonal violence has shifted qualitatively in form historically. An excellent overview of the nature of interpersonal violence during different historical eras.

  • Eisner, Manuel. 2008. Modernity strikes back? A historical perspective on the latest increase in interpersonal violence (1960–1990). International Journal of Conflict and Violence 2.2:288–316.

    A succinct summary of both historical and post-1960 crime trends for several European nations. Provides a description of homicide trends during these eras and summarizes the explanations that have been provided for them.

  • Goldberger, Arthur S., and Richard Rosenfeld, eds. 2008. Understanding crime trends: Workshop report. Proceedings of a two-day workshop held by the National Research Council in April 2007. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    An edited volume that summarizes the proceedings of a workshop on understanding crime trends. Individual chapters describe recent US crime trends, spanning 1980 through the middle of the 2000s, and provide overviews of existing knowledge about explanations of past crime trends and forecasting future crime trends. An exhaustive overview of contemporary crime trends in America, suitable for those who seek an in-depth understanding of crime trends since 1980.

  • Gurr, Ted R. 1981. Historical trends in violent crime: A critical review of the evidence. Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research 3:295–350.

    An excellent overview of historical crime trends for America and several European nations. A highly accessible source that provides a condensed discussion of historical crime patterns.

  • Johnson, Eric A., and Eric H. Monkkonen, eds. 1996. The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    An edited volume that contains several insightful chapters on long-term and short-term trends in crime rates across much of Europe form the early 14th century to the first half of the 20th century. A good source for those looking for advanced description and analysis of historical crime trends.

  • LaFree, Gary. 1998. Losing legitimacy: Street crime and the decline of institutions in America. Crime and Society. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Concise book that outlines an argument for why crime rates rose in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Provides a useful overview of data sources and methodological considerations in documenting and explaining contemporary crime trends. A highly accessible and relatively short book that broadenings understanding of post–World War II US crime trends.

  • Lane, Roger. 1997. Murder in America: A history. History of Crime and Criminal Justice Series. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

    A careful and thorough examination of the quantity and quality of murder and responses to murder in America from the precolonial era through the early 1990s. A must-read for persons on murder in America and its connection to contemporary patterns.

  • Zimring, Frank E. 2006. The great American crime decline. Studies in Crime and Public Policy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A highly accessible book that documents in detail the nature and magnitude of the 1990s crime decline in America and selected other nations, and that provides an overview of the factors thought to be most responsible for the observed patterns. A good introduction to the 1990s crime decline.

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