Crime Is Still at Historic Lows

Coauthored with Nathan Leamer of the R Street Institute. This op-ed was originally published at The American Spectator on October 4, 2016.

Some are playing up news stories or writing editorials with clickbait headlines featuring violent crimes as a way to stoke fear in the minds of Americans to achieve political goals, but the fact is that you’re safer walking down the street today than the early 1970s.

Last week the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its annual Uniform Crime Report, which offered a look at crime in the United States in 2015. The data were gathered from state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. While the 2013 and 2014 reports showed that violent crime declined almost across the board, this year’s report shows that violent crime rates, including homicides, increased.

It won’t be long before the report is already being used as an excuse for why Congress should not pursue criminal justice reform this year, but this logic is incredibly short-sighted and looks past the bigger picture of what we know about crime in the United States.

Since the early 1990s, crime has been in rapid decline. An October 2015 report from the Pew Research Center noted that gun-related homicides, excluding suicides, decreased by nearly 49 percent between 1993 and 2014. The nonfatal firearm victimization rate also declined by roughly 75 percent over the same period.

Violent crime has not been at this low of a rate since the early 1970s, before the crack epidemic that began in the mid-1980s. Current property crime rates have not been this low since the mid-to-late 1960s.

Unfortunately, Americans were largely unaware of this historically significant drop in crime. According to annual Gallup surveys, Americans overwhelmingly think that there is more crime in the United States.

Despite a decline in crime rates in 2002, 62 percent of Americans said they thought there was more crime in the United States than the previous year. In 2009, that figure rose to 74 percent before declining to 66 percent in 2010.

One can imagine some of the causes affecting Americans’ perception of crime in the United States. The rise of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle, which thrives on the market for bad news is likely a contributing factor. Politicians, too, deserve blame for either not effectively communicating the successes of the policies that led to the crime decline — or ignoring them entirely.

The new FBI crime data, which shows a slight uptick in violent crime and homicides, is obviously disheartening. Every murder is a tragedy and no one wants crime to increase. But a one-year increase shouldn’t put the brakes on effective policy.

Even in the midst of the crime decline in the past 20-plus years, there were two consecutive years, 2005 and 2006, in which violent crime and homicides increased. This spike was brief, as violent crime and homicides resumed the decline again in 2007 and returned to the pre-spike downward trend in 2008.

The very same voices working hard to squash criminal justice reform at the federal level are ignoring crucial evidence that point to these increases being driven by local dynamics.

Recently, the New York Times noted that homicides rose in only a quarter of America’s largest 100 cities. In fact, according to the Times, “half of the increase came from just seven cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington.” Violent crime in each of these cities has occurred in specific neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and other factors that are contributing to the uptick.

Current tensions between law enforcement and communities of color in some parts of the country, such as Baltimore, are likely contributing to increases in violent crime. Law enforcement depends on good relationships and trust with these communities, and recent incidents, justified or not, have dissolved that trust.

In other cities, such as Chicago, the increase in violent crime has been linked to gang activity. In Milwaukee, the increase, according to the Times, appears to be largely driven by petty arguments between the victim and assailant.

Opponents of federal criminal justice reform willfully ignore the fact that a majority of these crimes are almost entirely within state and local jurisdiction and are not affected by the proposed federal sentencing reforms.

Instead, these agitators will argue that incarceration is the best (and only) policy law enforcement has to keep crime down. Obviously, violent offenders should serve severe sentences, and no one has argued otherwise. But the best research suggests that only 25 percent of the crime decline can be attributed to incarceration. This means that 75 percent of the decline can be attributed to other factors.

Even researchers who study the impact on incarceration and crime rates have warned of diminishing returns, because too often a majority of the imprisoned pose less of a threat to the public. More important in the equation were more police on the streets, community policing, and opportunities for upward mobility.

Texas paved the way for criminal justice reform, with Georgia, Oklahoma and other states following in its footsteps. Since passing its first justice reinvestment initiative in 2007, the Lone Star State has reaped benefits. Crime dropped by 21 percent even as the incarceration rate declined by 12 percent. Not only can the state boast billions of dollars saved but also claim its lowest crime rate since 1968.

While some may be claiming that there is a new national crime wave, what we know is that crime is still at historic lows and there is “no single explanation for the increases and no clear pattern among those cities that experienced the most horrific violence.”

If anything, state legislatures should continue to show a commitment to evidence-based policing strategies and criminal justice reforms that lower recidivism and fight crime. Likewise, Congress should bring the successful policies of the states to the federal prison system.