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Is a Cell Phone All It Took to Reduce Crime?

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By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Statistics say homicides declined at the turn of the 21st century, and researchers say cell phones could explain it.

According to the new theory, drug dealers and other criminal types used cell phones to work around turf wars. It didn't keep crime off the streets, but it kept the homicides down. It's not the only explanation for the decline in violent crime, but is a new take on the statistic.

Who would of thought cell phones were crime-fighters?


Lena Edlund, a Columbia University economist, and Cecilia Machado of the Getulio Vargas Foundation offer their theory in a working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research. They say cell phones could account for 19 to 29 percent of the decline in homicides from 1990 to 2000.

In the 1980s, they say, gangs attacked and defended their turf for drug sales. That's how dealers fought off the competition. In the 1990s, they found a work-around with cell phones. "The cell phones changed how drugs were dealt," Edlund told the Atlantic. '"Its not that people don't sell or do drugs anymore, but the relationship between that and violence is different."

It's a novel theory, and peers will surely critique it. But researchers have also made a connection between fewer property crimes and rising cell phone use.

Other Answers

Studies show other reasons for the decline in crime. For example, the Brennan Center for Justice found the following:

  • increased incarceration
  • more police officers
  • an aging population
  • less alcohol use
  • lower unemployment

Of course, there is little value to historical studies if society does not learn from the past. In the future, it will take every effort to reduce violence and crime in general. Perhaps the cell phone study suggests a lesson: parolees be issued cells phones with GPS tracking upon release. But like detective Harry Crumb said, it's just a theory.

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