At-risk youth rising, so too will crime
By James Alan Fox
Monday, March 27, 2006

 The recent surge in violence locally is hard to ignore or discount. Not only were Boston murders up 20 percent last year over the year before, but 2006 has gotten off to a gun-blazing start.

Eight homicides, all gun-related, occurred from Jan. 1 through the middle of March, up from seven killings during the same time frame last year. Nonfatal shootings are up from 40 to 69.

Local politicians haven't been taking the surge in violence lying down. The mayor hosted a series of conferences and summits, including one last week at Northeastern University on guns and youth.

With "less talk and more action," City Councilor Rob Consalvo is pushing high-tech acoustic surveillance for gunshots. While the "Shotspotter" devices are hailed by the manufacturer for speeding police response and cutting crime in North Charleston, S.C., and Gary, Ind., the evidence is underwhelming. North Charleston is hardly a hot spot with 11 murders last year, and traffic in Gary is not nearly as congested and response-slowing as the Hub's.

Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole plans to bring additional recruits onto the force, helping alleviate the depleted manpower. Besides the budgetary deferment of 14 recruits, it will be some time before we see significant growth in resources.

State lawmakers put aside their differences long enough to pass an anti-gang bill that features stiffer penalties for witness intimidation. Whether the sanctions are sufficient to dissuade those with incentive to threaten snitches remains questionable.

I don't mean to be a cynic. I pray that these varied initiatives, each worth a nibble, will combine to make for one big bite out of crime.

Actually, the tool of my trade - statistics - will likely take a bigger mouthful out of crime, and almost immediately. What goes up, generally comes down. That which Isaac Newton observed in apples and gravity is typically true for heat waves, stock surges and even crime spikes. Sharp increases in crime - especially murder - during a short time period tend to be followed by a decline, a return to normalcy.

For proof of "Fox's First Law of Crime," I analyzed murder trends for 52 of the nation's largest cities. On 213 occasions during the past two decades, cities experienced a surge in homicide of 20 percent or more over the previous year, the kind of spike reported for Boston in 2005 over 2004. More than 70 percent of the time, the murder tally fell in the subsequent year.

Boston, for example, witnessed a whopping 67 percent homicide jump in 2001, prompting USA Today to single out our city for having the nation's largest increase. USA Today was silent when murders fell in 2002.

So despite this year's inauspicious start, history is on our side. The odds that homicide will drop for the year is over 2-1, surely better than that of the Pats returning to the Super Bowl since the departure of "Adam-atic" Vinatieri.

"Fox's Second Law," however, is never to make much of a one-year shift in crime, be it up or down. Year-to-year crime trends, the kind reported in the press, are often misleading and self-correcting. The long-term is more important.

Although the 2006 murder toll will likely be lower than 2005, the trajectory for the rest of the decade is not so promising. The number of at-risk youth is on the rise - that much we know - and will not subside until about 2010. The challenge of crime will persist.

I've devoted much of my career to crime forecasting, and I've been right more often than not, including having predicted the recent upturn in violence. Yet I hope the efforts of local leadership will cause me to be wrong about the challenging years ahead.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at