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Police: Iowa City 21-only ordinance cut felonies, alcohol crimes

With a referendum on Iowa City’s 21-only ordinance coming up in November, the police just released data indicating a number of crimes have dropped since the ordinance was first passed. An earlier repeal effort was only narrowly defeated, and organizers hope support from the police and city council will firmly settle the issue.

First passed in 2010, the 21-only law bans anyone under 21 in an Iowa City from an alcohol-serving establishments after 10 p.m.

Iowa City Police Department data shows that, since the ordinance was first passed, alcohol-related crime, public disturbances, drunk driving and even felonies such as rape and physical assault have all dropped in downtown and the so-called “University Impact Area.” Overall, police received 1,383 fewer 911 calls for rape and felony assault in the period between 2010 and 2013 than between 2007 and 2010, before the ordinance was passed.

The area surrounding the university apparently experienced an even greater drop in felony 911 calls, and the Fire Department reported a nearly 24-percent decrease in citywide medical response calls between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. At the same time, however, paramedic calls increased off-campus and citywide over the same period.

All of this is positive news, but is it fair to say the 21-only ordinance is responsible for the decrease in crime?

The fact is, criminal justice scholars find it extremely difficult to tie reductions in crime to any particular factor. For example, New York City’s mayor has repeatedly asserted that city’s “stop and frisk” policy, now found unconstitutional, was responsible for a drop in violent crime, but a federal court found the evidence for that claim circumstantial, at best.

Without taking a position on the 21-only ordinance itself, consider that policy decisions should be based on values, not statistical associations. Criminal justice scholars generally don’t see reductions in criminal activity occurring at the same time particular law enforcement techniques are implemented as proof of cause-and-effect relationships.

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