December 9, 1999
By Gareth Davis and David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D.
The FBI reported recently that serious crime fell by 10 percent
during the first half of 1999, extending the nationwide drop in
crime to 7 1/2 years. This is good news, to be sure, but the FBI's
national figures tell only part of the story. In some
jurisdictions, crime has dropped dramatically, while in others it
has gone down only slightly, or even risen. And in some cases,
stark differences in crime rates exist between jurisdictions that
are nearly identical in every other way.
A perfect example is found in comparing Montgomery and Fairfax
counties in the Washington suburbs. While the 1999 data are not yet
available for the two counties, the 1998 data show that both are
fairly safe places to live, with rates for almost all offenses
below the national norm. But the FBI statistics show a striking
disparity in crime rates between the two. For example, although its
1998 population was 11.5 percent larger than Montgomery County's,
Fairfax had 1,083 fewer violent crimes. Even after controlling for
population size, which works in Montgomery's favor, the Maryland
county has a violent-crime rate 2.4 times that of its Virginia
neighbor. Crime by crime, a resident of Montgomery is 1.7 times
more likely to be raped, 2.2 times more likely to be robbed and 2.8
times more likely to suffer an aggravated assault.
This discrepancy has emerged only in the past 20 years. During the
late 1970s, Fairfax and Montgomery had roughly similar crime rates.
But crime rates have since plummeted in Fairfax, while dropping
only modestly, or even rising, in Montgomery.
Montgomery's average population from 1978 to 1998 was 7 percent
smaller than Fairfax's, but the Maryland county had 2,400 more
rapes, 6,153 more robberies, 11,770 more aggravated assaults, 38
more murders and 38,087 more burglaries.
From a social-science perspective, this discrepancy shouldn't
exist, since the two counties have almost identical socieconomic
profiles. According to the Census Bureau, both have low poverty
rates (5.4 percent for each jurisdiction in 1995), similar
per-capita incomes ($ 41,539 in Montgomery and $ 39,951 in Fairfax
in 1997) and similar unemployment rates (2.3 percent in Montgomery
and 1.6 percent in Fairfax in 1998).
Likewise, the racial, ethnic and family composition of the two
counties is almost identical. Fairfax and Montgomery have nearly
the same proportions of Asians and Hispanics, and there is only a
slightly higher proportion of African Americans on the Maryland
side (15.3 percent vs. 8.3 percent in Fairfax). Both counties have
also seen rapid population growth and large-scale immigration
during the past 30 years, which has changed them from enclaves that
were almost completely non-Hispanic white to models of ethnic
diversity. Nor does one county have significantly more broken homes
than the other: 83 percent of the families with children in
Montgomery consist of married couples, compared to 85 percent in
So what accounts for the dramatically different crime rates
between the two counties. Is it police policy? Probably not. There
is little evidence that the gap in crime rates comes from
differences either in the professionalism or the amount of
resources devoted to policing. In 1998 Fairfax County Police and
Montgomery County Police solved 57 percent and 58 percent of all
violent crimes respectively.
Is it gun-control policy? Perhaps. Maryland has stricter gun laws
than Virginia, which means that criminals have a greater likelihood
of being confronted by an armed citizen in Virginia. Indeed, the
gap between the two counties in crimes that involve face-to-face
contact with a victim (such as rape, burglary, assault and robbery)
is much greater than for offenses in which such contact is unlikely
(larceny and car theft, for example).
Is it criminal justice policy? This looks like the best
explanation. The only significant way Montgomery and Fairfax have
differed over the past 20 years is that they have been governed by
state legislatures and gubernatorial administrations with vastly
different approaches to crime.
While Maryland has largely adhered to older and more lenient
criminal justice policies during the past two decades, Virginia has
emerged as one of the toughest-on-crime states in the nation. For
example, in 1994 Virginia was the first state to abolish parole for
violent felons. Maryland has no such law. More recently, Virginia
enacted a truth-in-sentencing law requiring all violent prisoners
to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences. Maryland law
requires only that imnates serve 50 percent of their sentences.
Indeed, looking back over the 20-year period 1978-98, for every 100
Maryland criminals in prison, 66 walked the streets as parolees; in
Virginia, only 45 did.
As for capital crimes, Virginia has been far less reluctant to
employ the death penalty, executing 11 murderers during the first
nine months of 1999 alone. Maryland has executed only three
murderers in the past 20 years.
Following the rapid drop in crime in New York City after the
institution of police reforms by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, much
attention was focused on better policing as the key to controlling
crime. But the sharply different experiences of Montgomery and
Fairfax counties offer compelling evidence that criminal justice
reforms can also be effective in driving down crime rates.
Conversely, lenient criminal justice policies can exact a
substantial price, not just in inner cities but in some of the
nation's most affluent suburbs.
Gareth Davis is a former policy analyst and David
B. Muhlhausen a senior policy analyst at the Heritage
Originally appeared in the Washington Post.
ED120999: Crime in Two Counties
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David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D.
Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
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