Is a Crime Wave Coming?
What Happened During World War II?
How do these more or less theoretical expectations conform to the facts? We have two main sources of information by which to check our opinions. One is a compilation of the crimes known to the police in towns and cities, which is made annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the other is the number of convictions for major offenses in a group of selected states, which is gathered by the Census Bureau.
Table I shows the number of offenses known to the police for each 100,000 people living in cities and towns. It should be explained that the rates shown for the years from 1935 to 1940 were based on the estimated population in 1933, while, beginning with 1940, the population figure of 1940 was used. This had the effect of making the rates up to 1940 a little higher than they would have been if we had had exact population figures for each year.
A study of the table shows that criminal homicide rates dropped steadily after 1937, except for slight upturns in 1941 and 1944. Crimes of aggravated assault were fairly stable until 1940, but tended to increase thereafter. The robbery rate steadily decreased through the ten-year period. Burglary rates went up gradually until 1941, dropped for two years, then turned upward once more. Theft rates, except for automobiles, reached a peak in 1941. Automobile thefts reached a low point in 1942, but the rate then climbed upward again, possibly because of the rise in prices of secondhand cars.
Table II, which shows the rate of convictions for major crimes, seems to show a very favorable picture. The war years 1942 and 1943 show lower rates than 1940 and 1941 and much lower rates than 1938 and 1939. It should be borne in mind that when all major crimes are lumped together, as in this table, the combined rate is likely to follow the trend of the burglary and larceny rates, for these crimes are far more numerous than the others taken into consideration.
What do these figures mean?
From a study of these figures, one is tempted to conclude that the war had a favorable effect on the crime rate in this country, with the possible exception of crimes of violence against life. In all probability this was due to the removal of a large pro-, portion of young men into the armed services and to growing economic prosperity. It should be remembered, however, that these tables do not show the growth in racketeering which accompanied rationing.
Women and crime
Women commit only a small proportion of crimes in normal times. Murder is almost the only crime of violence in which they are likely to figure. There are almost no women robbers or burglars. The woman criminal depends on deceit, fraud, and the use of sex appeal as a rule, rather than on strength, skill, or agility.
Students of criminology have always assumed that one reason for this state of affairs was the fact that woman’s role as wife, mother, and housekeeper sheltered her from many of the conflicts and temptations that confront men. But the war wrought enormous changes in women’s lives. Millions of them went out from their homes to take jobs in war plants or to do other kinds of work. If the old explanation for their low crime rates was correct, their new role in the working world should have caused an increase in the number of crimes committed by women.
Did it actually work out that way? Unfortunately our criminal statistics are too meager to make a conclusive answer possible at present, but what little is known bears out this theory.
How about juvenile delinquency?
We heard a great deal about juvenile delinquency during the war. Most GI’s had a chance at one time or another to visit one of the country’s large cities and to form their own opinions about the so-called “Victory girls.” In most communities, juvenile courts usually handle children under 16, and in some states the age limits go up to 17 or 18. We ought to remember; however, that these courts handle not only children who have committed crimes, but also children who are in danger of becoming delinquents, which is quite another matter.
Juvenile court statistics have been collected for a number of years by the Children’s Bureau of the United States Department of Labor, which gets these figures from 225 courts, most of which are in large cities. The first thing we find is that four times as many boys as girls come before these courts.
If we compare 1938 with 1944, there has been a sharp and fairly steady increase in both girls’ and boys’ cases. In 19 there were 51 percent more boys’ cases and 82 percent more girls’ cases than in 1938. The change has not been uniform throughout the country. Some areas have been especially hard hit, while others have actually shown a decline. One especially interesting point to note is that the beginning of the rise occurred before the start of the war.
We really don’t know whether or not these figures are true guides. Much of the increase in the number of girls’ cases was the direct result of the public furor over girls’ sexual behavior in wartime. Parents and public authorities appealed to juvenile courts to do something about sex misbehavior, which may have been as frequent before the war, but less flagrant.
We have one other source of information on the subject. The FBI regularly receives fingerprints from police authorities all over the nation for checking against its file. In 1943, the number of boys under 18 who were fingerprinted was 23 percent greater than in 1942; in 1944, it was 21.5 percent above the 1942 figure. Both years showed a progressive increase in homicide and assault charges against boys of this age group. Girls under the age of 21 are all classified in a single age group by the FBI. In 1940 it received the fingerprints of about 8,400 of them. Since then it has not released actual figures but has only shown the percentage of increases and decreases on various charges. However, these figures indicate that about 13,000 girls were fingerprinted in 1942, and about 22,000 arrests are estimated for each of the two succeeding years.
These facts confirm the experience of other nations at war. Wartime strains weakened our social fabric in many ways. Many children were deprived of the supervision that their fathers or older brothers would ordinarily have given them. Other youngsters worked in war plants and received wages that were fantastic by peacetime standards. They had the money, and they thought they had the right, to amuse themselves in any way they saw fit. Many children quit school at the earliest possible moment to try for some of the “big money” and thereby were exposed to temptations they would not otherwise have encountered.
Thus our police and court statistics plainly show that moral hazards were increased for children in wartime.