by David M. Gonzalez

Once again, criminal defense attorneys prove to be the canaries in the coal mine.

Many of our colleagues in the civil bar understand why their work has slowed down, but they believe that the economic downturn would help our business.  Not so.

For the past year we’ve been explaining that people are keeping their nose to the grindstone, working hard, and not getting into the trouble that an extravagant lifestyle often allows. If money is tight, you’ve got less to spend on entertainment. You’re not going to bars. You’re not taking a risk of Driving While Intoxicated. You’re not celebrating mergers and acquisitions with the same gusto and reckless abandon of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Fine – but the belief is that petty crime and violent crime should rise because more people are desperate.

Not so.

As reported in a May 25, 2010 article by Evan Perez of the Wall Street Journal, violent crime fell significantly last year in cities across the U.S.

The incidence of violent crimes such as murder, rape and aggravated assault was down 5.5% from 2008, and 6.9% in big cities. The early figures, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, indicate a third straight year of decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.

The FBI said property crime fell 4.9% last year, according to the early data, from more than 13,000 police departments.

“It represents a break in the pattern of the relationship between crime increases and economic downturns,” said Richard Rosenfeld, criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Violent crime rose nearly 5% in 1991, the FBI said.

The police have been the quickest to claim credit for the drop in crime.  That’s like dentists claiming credit for the drop in the number of cavities. There may be a causal relationship, but the by the time either the police or dentist is involved either a crime has been committed or a tooth has decayed.

Criminal defense lawyers are the canaries in the coalmine because we interact with a number of different people from across the economic spectrum.  Nobody plans to spend money on a criminal defense lawyer. Nobody wants to be in our office.  However, when you hear the same types of stories from people working in minimum wage jobs to corner offices talk about how tight things are, one thing is fairly certain: nobody has much free time. Everybody is working harder to maintain the standard of living they had before things took a turn for the worse. Everybody is spending more time at home with their family.

Nobody has said, “there’s a lot more police on the street.” We’ve yet to hear somebody explain that they’ve decided to be good all of a sudden. Jobs are tight. Criminal background checks are a standard practice. There is little room for error.  People aren’t desperate – they are focused.

It’s a good thing to be in a country where Japan, China and India are crushing us in nearly every economic indicator. If the plunging crime rate helps the overall sake and health of the community and the economy – I hope our business stays slow.

(image via The Wall Street Journal.)

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