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Perhaps one of the most misleading comments in the past few years is that the United States is seeing a new crime wave develop. Politicians who have long pushed for lengthier prison sentences seized on increases in violent crime and homicides in 2015 and 2016 as justification to oppose legislation in Congress that would bring rehabilitative programming designed to reduce recidivism to federal prisons and modestly reform federal sentencing laws.
Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released the 2017 iteration of Crime in the United States. The report is a collection of data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. The data include the raw number of crimes committed and the crime rates per 100,000 inhabitants for states, counties, and cities.
Although crime rates are down significantly since the early 1990s, crime routinely remains near the top of Americans’ concerns. Of course, cable and local news frequently focus on instances of crime in their daily reporting, and politicians use crime as a theme in their campaigns, often mistakenly pushing tougher sentencing laws as their “solution” in the process.
According to data released last week by the FBI, violent crime peaked in 1991, at 758.1 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants, and began a remarkable downward trend. In 2004, the violent crime rate was 463.2 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. The violent crime rate increased in 2005 and 2006, to 469 and 479.3, before falling back down in 2008 when there were 458.6 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. Violent crime continued to fall as recently as 2014 when it dropped to 361.6 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants.
The violent crime rate increased in 2015 and 2016, at 384.6 and 386.3 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. Although there was an increase, the violent crime rate remained below the 2012 level. For purposes of the FBI report, violent crime includes murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, and robbery.
Why did the violent crime rate rise? No one can say with any certainty. Experts have pointed out that crime rate increases in certain jurisdictions are usually driven by local factors and is generally concentrated in specific neighborhoods.
The homicide rate in 2017 was 5.3 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. Although that figure represents a statistically insignificant decrease from 2016, the homicide rate is comparable to 2008 levels and dramatically lower than the peak rate of 10.2 in 1980. The recent increase in homicides are, as mentioned above, concentrated. For example, six cities -- Chicago, Las Vegas, Louisville, Memphis, and Phoenix -- were responsible for 76 percent of the increase in homicides in major cities.
Although robberies saw a statistically insignificant increase in 2015 and 2016, the number of reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants declined in 2017 to 101.2. The rate peaked in 1991 at 272.7 -- more than double today’s rate. Although the aggravated assault rate increased slightly, from 248.5 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016 to 252.4 in 2017, the rate, like virtually every other crime measured in the report, is far below its peak of 441.8 in 1992.
Burglaries are at a record low. The crime data show that the reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants was 429.1 in 2017, down from 468.9 in 2016. The rate peaked in 1980 at 1,694.1 reported incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. Similarly, property crime has consistently declined. In 2017, there were 2,378.9 property crimes reported per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate peaked in 1980 at 5,353.3.
Across the board, crime rates are the lowest they’ve been since the late 1960s or early 1970s and are generally far below levels seen in the 1980s and early 1990s. A preliminary analysis of crime in 2018 recently released by the Brennan Center shows that the downward trajectory is expected to continue. Indeed, Americans are much safer walking down the street now than they were two or three decades ago.
Of course, opponents of criminal justice reform will try to tell you differently. They’ll say, as we’ve seen them argue, that violent crime is surging. Simply put, that’s a lie. But fear is an often-used tool of those who are desperate. We have to push back against politicians and talking heads who try to ignore that crime has fallen and appears to be going down once again.