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Research Links Lead Exposure, Criminal Activity
Data May Undermine Giuliani's Claims
The WaPo link
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Rudy Giuliani never misses an opportunity to remind people about his track record in fighting crime as mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001.
"I began with the city that was the crime capital of America," Giuliani, now a candidate for president, recently told Fox's Chris Wallace. "When I left, it was the safest large city in America. I reduced homicides by 67 percent. I reduced overall crime by 57 percent."
Although crime did fall dramatically in New York during Giuliani's tenure, a broad range of scientific research has emerged in recent years to show that the mayor deserves only a fraction of the credit that he claims. The most compelling information has come from an economist in Fairfax who has argued in a series of little-noticed papers that the "New York miracle" was caused by local and federal efforts decades earlier to reduce lead poisoning.
The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. It offers a unifying new neurochemical theory for fluctuations in the crime rate, and it is based on studies linking children's exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives.
What makes Nevin's work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.
"It is stunning how strong the association is," Nevin said in an interview. "Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead."
Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor.
Giuliani's presidential campaign declined to address Nevin's contention that the mayor merely was at the right place at the right time. But William Bratton, who served as Giuliani's police commissioner and who initiated many of the policing techniques credited with reducing the crime rate, dismissed Nevin's theory as absurd. Bratton and Giuliani instituted harsh measures against quality-of-life offenses, based on the "broken windows" theory of addressing minor offenses to head off more serious crimes.
Many other theories have emerged to try to explain the crime decline. In the 2005 book "Freakonomics," Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner said the legalization of abortion in 1973 had eliminated "unwanted babies" who would have become violent criminals. Other experts credited lengthy prison terms for violent offenders, or demographic changes, socioeconomic factors, and the fall of drug epidemics. New theories have emerged as crime rates have inched up in recent years.
Most of the theories have been long on intuition and short on evidence. Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.
Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.
"It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime" in the 1990s, Nevin said. "But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early '70s and started falling in the late '70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or '87.
"In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s," he said. "This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States."
Lead levels plummeted in New York in the early 1970s, driven by federal policies to eliminate lead from gasoline and local policies to reduce lead emissions from municipal incinerators. Between 1970 and 1974, the number of New York children heavily poisoned by lead fell by more than 80 percent, according to data from the New York City Department of Health.
Lead levels in New York have continued to fall. One analysis in the late 1990s found that children in New York had lower lead exposure than children in many other big U.S. cities, possibly because of a 1960 policy to replace old windows. That policy, meant to reduce deaths from falls, had an unforeseen benefit -- old windows are a source of lead poisoning, said Dave Jacobs of the National Center for Healthy Housing, an advocacy group that is publicizing Nevin's work. Nevin's research was not funded by the group.
The later drop in violent crime was dramatic. In 1990, 31 New Yorkers out of every 100,000 were murdered. In 2004, the rate was 7 per 100,000 -- lower than in most big cities. The lead theory also may explain why crime fell broadly across the United States in the 1990s, not just in New York.
The centerpiece of Nevin's research is an analysis of crime rates and lead poisoning levels across a century. The United States has had two spikes of lead poisoning: one at the turn of the 20th century, linked to lead in household paint, and one after World War II, when the use of leaded gasoline increased sharply. Both times, the violent crime rate went up and down in concert, with the violent crime peaks coming two decades after the lead poisoning peaks.
Other evidence has accumulated in recent years that lead is a neurotoxin that causes impulsivity and aggression, but these studies have also drawn little attention. In 2001, sociologist Paul B. Stretesky and criminologist Michael Lynch showed that U.S. counties with high lead levels had four times the murder rate of counties with low lead levels, after controlling for multiple environmental and socioeconomic factors.
In 2002, Herbert Needleman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, compared lead levels of 194 adolescents arrested in Pittsburgh with lead levels of 146 high school adolescents: The arrested youths had lead levels that were four times higher.
"Impulsivity means you ignore the consequences of what you do," said Needleman, one of the country's foremost experts on lead poisoning, explaining why Nevin's theory is plausible. Lead decreases the ability to tell yourself, "If I do this, I will go to jail."
Nevin's work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin's findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.
"There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure," she said.
Two new studies by criminologists Richard Rosenfeld and Steven F. Messner have looked at Giuliani's policing policies. They found that the mayor's zero-tolerance approach to crime was responsible for 10 percent, maybe 20 percent, at most, of the decline in violent crime in New York City.
Nevin acknowledges that crime rates are rising in some parts of the United States after years of decline, but he points out that crime is falling in other places and is still low overall by historical measures. Also, the biggest reductions in lead poisoning took place by the mid-1980s, which may explain why reductions in crime might have tapered off by 2005. Lastly, he argues that older, recidivist offenders -- who were exposed to lead as toddlers three or four decades ago -- are increasingly accounting for much of the violent crime.
Nevin's finding may even account for phenomena he did not set out to address. His theory addresses why rates of violent crime among black adolescents from inner-city neighborhoods have declined faster than the overall crime rate -- lead amelioration programs had the biggest impact on the urban poor. Children in inner-city neighborhoods were the ones most likely to be poisoned by lead, because they were more likely to live in substandard housing that had lead paint and because public housing projects were often situated near highways.
Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, for example, were built over the Dan Ryan Expressway, with 150,000 cars going by each day. Eighteen years after the project opened in 1962, one study found that its residents were 22 times more likely to be murderers than people living elsewhere in Chicago.
Nevin's finding implies a double tragedy for America's inner cities: Thousands of children in these neighborhoods were poisoned by lead in the first three quarters of the last century. Large numbers of them then became the targets, in the last quarter, of Giuliani-style law enforcement policies.
OK, two observations here:
(1) Is there anything that some soft-headed academic can't turn into "the" cause of crime? (Other than actual free will, of course.)
(2) Don't you just love the editorializing at the end of this "hard news" piece? That last paragraph crystalizes one of the (numerous) problems with today's supposedly "objective" mainstream media.
Only the liberal media could turn a crime fighter into a baby-hurting maniac.
How long before we see defendants in the larger urban conglomerations claiming that gas made them do it! If you drive an SUV, YOU, not the defendant, are the cause.
So we can blame crime rates on Al Gore's huge utility bills?
JB, JB, JB.
If fighting crime really and truly resulted in a significant, lengthy drop in the crime rate, people in Williamson County could go to bed at night with their doors unlocked, stop worrying about child abuse, theft, and unlawful official conduct, and drive down IH35, Highway 79 and other drives, without any fear of getting creamed by a DWI or an overloaded gravel hauler. Of course, people in Williamson County can do none of that, because despite the lawn order mania of elected officials, out of sight public budgets for law enforcement, and a generally overall authoritarian approach to life in a civil society, Williamson County is still full of law breakers, judging by the land office business that Williamson County criminal courts are doing. And with no abatement in sight.
What do you, JAS and Mr. Gibbs have against science, anyway? Maybe there is some other approach to making life safe other than by locking people away for extremely long terms for all offenses, not just the really heinous ones.
The explanation seems plausible if this chemical truly poisons the area of the brain that control impulsive behavior.
If true it is good news because the long term crime rate should stay down unless it turns out that something new like Splenda sweetener or the Internet also damage this part of the brain.
Doran - Williamson county was mostly empty back when Leaded gas and paint were used. The population growth came in the years since that stuff was banned.
I suspect that some percentage of the population are, for lack of a better term, "bad apples." As the population grows, so will the number of bad apples. Also with more police and more media, we are more likely to be alerted to criminal misdeeds.
Nothing against science. I suppose we could say that no one is accountable for the crimes they commit, though, because there are an infinite number of excuses available. Additionally, the links between many of the alleged causes and crime have not been unequivocally proved nor have the links gained general acceptance. When someone finds a pragmatic alternative to jail or prison that actually works, I'm sure many prosecutors would be open to a different remedy. I wish we could solve all the world's problems on this site. In the meantime, I'm sure most of us are reading and considering most of the comments here.
Isn't there a forum at the TCDLA for this? I wouldn't know, because they won't let us in over there...
It is not fair, Mr. Gibbs, when you place true facts into a liberal argument. The truth has no place in liberal hysteria.
I must have missed the part where it said this has something to do with liberal politics.
It doesn't say that people exposed to lead are unable to control their violent impulses.
It just says their ability to restrain themselves is diminished.
They formed a clear intent and they acted on that intent.
Without the exposure, they may have overcome the urge.
This is not an excuse for bad behavior.
Some people are more impulsive than others. Some are naturally more reserved. Some people have to try harder. Some people are smarter, faster, and better looking than you. Sorry but that's life. If you happen to be one of the impulsive people then you'd better learn to control it or accept the consequences.
This lesson starts in pre-school. Blaming your genes or lead exposure doesn't make bad behavior OK.
If the leaded paints were the sole cause of crime, all kids/people exposed would be criminals. Some were exposed and still chose to lead crime and violence free lives....leading me to believe that the leaded paints are not the sole cause. There is still that whole personal choice component to crimes!
As noted by Shannon, it's in the the last paragraph of the article. Also in the name of the newspaper that published the article.
Most of us with experience in law enforcement (and with all due respect to my late father, being a defense attorney is not a law enforcement occupation), know that "Free Will" is what controls the impetus for most criminal acts.
Going back to Jeremy Bentham, and probably before him, liberalist philosophy has been searching for the motivation (i.e. other than free will), ANY MOTIVATION, that causes criminal behavior. Many theories have been propounded, but the irony is that if liberalist philosophy could indeed accurately determine an alternate cause for criminal behavior, we as prosecutors would embrace it, and we would do whatever we could to use that information to help eliminate the
cause(s) of crime.
Note that the operative word is "accurately".
Despite all the grousing about John Bradley and Williamson County, he is and has been elected and re-elected by the populace there. So although some in the defense bar resent him for his success in fighting crime (i.e. locking up criminals so that they do not victimize again), it is well known amongst criminals that it is better to commit a criminal offense in a locale other than Williamson.
Funny, in 17 years as a prosecutor, I never heard a defense lawyer who was a victim of crime to urge leniency upon the criminal who victimized he/her and/or their family. They always want the book thrown at them. I likewise never heard them blame lead paint or any cause other than them being a "crooked SOB". This is not an attack on defense lawyers, as I am the son of a defense lawyer, it's just an observation...
[This message was edited by GG on 07-09-07 at .]
(1) I always thought the worst thing for a defendant trying to blame his lot in life on the bad cards dealt to him was to have other siblings in the same household/enviromment who did not enter into a life of crime. It gave me good, safe topics to discuss with the defendant's family members when cross-examining those sympathetic witnesses during punishment, and it also made for great closing argument material when debunking defense lawyers' cause-and-effect claims.
(2) I am fascinated by the quixotic search for "the cause" of crime. First, it is impossible to scientifically eliminate enough variables in a statistically signficant study cohort to arrive at reliable data from which to make any conclusions (translation: there are too many moving parts).
More importantly, this search for causation reminds me of so-called experts searching for "the causes" of poverty. We are all born into poverty absent someone or something else remedying that situation. There is no cause of poverty, there are only causes of prosperity. That's one reason for the frequent failures of the War on Poverty and other well-intended-but-ultimately-doomed efforts by the gov't to help the poor -- it approaches the problem of poverty as if prosperity is the norm, rather than the other way around. (Perhaps that's what happens when you live in the most prosperous time and place in the history of mankind.)
I believe this same principle holds true regarding criminal behavior, too. Call it nature, call it original sin, call it whatever you want -- people cannot live together in a community without rules being enforced to keep the peace. (A rule-less society has never been successful.) Those rules may be customs, mores, taboos, laws, or what have you, but they all serve the same purpose: to enforce the social compact and permit humans to live together in relative peace. That, in essence, is why prosecutors exist, and why they will always exist to one extent or another.
[This message was edited by Shannon Edmonds on 07-09-07 at .]
[This message was edited by Shannon Edmonds on 07-09-07 at .]
Science is akin to statistics in a number of ways. Among the more significant are the aura of objectivity and the susceptibility to use for whatever rhetorical end one has in mind. But application of those concepts to human behavior is a maddeningly inexact proposition that generates great sentimental disagreement. Just put a psychiatrist in the same room with Tom Cruise or John Travolta and see what happens.
On a broad scale, society needs certain things to remain a cohesive entity. One of those is a set of rules that apply to everyone with the objective of preventing the unscrupulous (or the leaded) from victimizing others, because victimization -- if left unchecked -- ultimately leads to descent into anarchy and Hobbes' "war of every man against every man." Avoiding that end is the very basis of social contract. And the integrity of those foundational rules relies upon avoidance of allowing exceptions to swallow the rules.
Lead isn't the only thing that can adversely impact impulse control. So can alcohol or a wide variety of pharmacological agents. Of course, it is a venerable maxim of criminal law that voluntary intoxication is not a defense to criminal liability. I can understand the potential argument that lead is different because those exposed did not have a conscious choice to be exposed. But sociological studies have long linked poverty to crime rates. Few make a conscious choice to be poor. While elimination of poverty is a lofty societal aspiration, to date, poverty is not an absolution from criminal responsibility. And neither should lead exposure be, at least in the absence of reliable findings that all who are exposed to lead will become criminals. Otherwise, there is an inescapable element of personal choice involved.
If the study is proffered as a starting ground for a crime prevention strategy, and the science is sound, I doubt many prosecutors would object. But if it represents the seeds of a new crop of defenses to anti-social behavior, there is little in the way the study is presented in the article to push those responsible for enforcing the law and dealing with victims of crime to warmly embrace it. "Leaded gasoline/paint made him do it, so I can't prosecute" is unlikely to assuage a crime victim or demonstrably serve the ends of justice.
P.S. I was writing my 95 Theses while Shannon posted his "Two More Cents." I extend my apologies to Shannon for parroting much of his more eloquent thought process.
[This message was edited by Scott Brumley on 07-09-07 at .]
Using the most recent statistics available in 2005, Williamson County, among counties with a population of 100,000 or more, has the lowest crime rate in the state. That standing has remained more or less constant for several years despite the growth in population.
Law enforcement, which includes police, probation officers, prosecutors, judges and, most importantly, juries, play a role in making that happen. Citizens who support law enforcement also play an important role.
Perhaps there is less lead paint in our homes. Perhaps deterrence works. But it takes a long, concerted effort to make it happen. Most of the time, a society fails to sustain its commitment long enough to see results (for an example, compare any two legislative sessions).
If, as a society, we ever decide that personal responsibility is no longer a justfiable reason for imposing punishment, then we are in for some real trouble. But, as human beings, we have been wiggling around personal responsibility ever since Adam and Eve blamed their trouble on the devil. And none of us are free from the wiggling.
Much can be said of the real meaning of the difference between a liberal and a conservative, but there does seem to be some truth to the notion that a liberal looks for an external explanation for bad behavior and a conservative looks to the individual's free will.
[This message was edited by JB on 07-09-07 at .]
[This message was edited by JB on 07-09-07 at .]
I am impressed with the arguments and counter-arguments. This site is a worthy part of the great howling that goes on in cyberspace.
My last words on this thread will be a challenge. Have not conservatives attempted to excuse the criminal behavior of various high profile conservative criminals, all the way from those in the Reagan Administration (North, et. al.), through the Administration of George H.W. Bush, and on into the current Bush Administration (Libby), by pointing out that they were MOTIVATED by love of country, patriotism, and a belief in God? Can we conclude, from the ages of those people, that they were perhaps over-exposed to lead paint and could not control their patriotic, religious impulses to commit crimes in the cause of the greater good? Or did they, along with all the conservative abortion clinic bombers and murderers, exercise their free will, free from environmental and social influences? If so, how close do they come to being sociopathic?
Thank you for allowing a non-prosecutor to participate. For what it is worth, some of my oldest friends, and some of my best friends, have been, or are currently prosecutors. And I have stopped practicing criminal law. I generally could not stand most of my clients. (The truly innocent ones being exceptions, of course.)
Good job, John! I'm moving to Georgetown...
Congratulations, John. I was also intrigued that two other counties on the peripheries of major metropolitan areas had such good crime rates: Fort Bend and Denton. A high population community, Tarrant County, was exceptionally high on the list too.
No mystery as to why Fort Bend and Denton had such good rates, John. You were in Denton, and I was in Fort Bend. LOL! And each jurisdiction was full (and still is) with hard working prosecutors who mirror the ethic of Williamson County, which is lock up those violent and drug dealing crooks.
And neither jurisdiction bought into cockamamie theories of the cause of criminal behavior.
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