Mobile phones have undoubtedly made us more connected than ever before, but have they also made us safer? Fresh research suggests that during the 1990s, they may have contributed to a significant drop in crime. In a paper titled Mobile Phones and Crime Deterrence: An Underappreciated Link, a team of academics concluded that cellphones deter crime because they increase the chances of being caught. “Mobile phones allow for quicker reporting of crimes, and, in some cases, real-time communication of details about the crimes and the criminals,” the paper concludes. “The perceived risk of apprehension could increase among motivated offenders when they notice potential targets are carrying a mobile phone.” Additionally, mobile phones have made it much easier to report crimes to police quickly and at little cost; victims or witnesses no longer need to seek out a payphone or a landline. The research was conducted by Jonathan Klick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; John MacDonald, a University of Pennsylvania criminology professor; and Thomas Stratman, a professor of law and economics at George Mason University. The overall crime rate fell by about one-third between 1991 and 2001; other researchers have attributed that decline to factors including bulked up police departments, new crime-prevention tactics; rising incarceration rates, and changes in the market for crack cocaine. The new research suggests that cellphones may also have played a role, although the authors cautioned that they lack enough data to prove causation. For one thing, the only comprehensive data available for mobile phone ownership before 1999 are national in scope, they write. The authors examined rape and aggravated assault cases at the state level between 1999 and 2007, because those crimes are more likely to be perpetrated by strangers and therefore are more likely to be deterred by the presence of mobile phones. (Police are less likely to categorize a crime as rape when the perpetrator is known to the victim, according to the study.) They also looked at how many residents in those states owned mobile phones, and performed a statistical analysis on the data. They found that higher rates of mobile phone use correlated to lower rates of violent crime. There was no similar negative correlation for property crime, however. The researchers also found that crime dropped more significantly in urban areas, where mobile phones were more common. (They noted that some research has shown an increase in robberies in 2005 and 2006, when portable electronics such as iPods became popular.) “Our findings at least suggest some effect of mobile phones on sustaining the historically low rates of crimes of interpersonal violence between 1999 and 2007 in states,” the researchers concluded. Although cellphones are already fairly pervasive, the study concluded that policymakers should urge people to carry them in hopes of deterring crime.
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