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February 19, 2014

Even with reductions in prison populations and end of pot prohibition, crime rates continue historic decline in 2013

Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report- January-June 2013-bannerAs reported in this New York Times piece, the "Federal Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday that violent crimes, including murders, fell by 5.4 percent in the first six months of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012, continuing a long reduction in violent crime across the country." Here are more details about this great news via the FBI (which is available in full detail at this link):

The only category where the number increased was rape, but that number is slightly misleading because the 2013 figure is based on a broader definition of the crime adopted by the Justice Department. In 2013, 14,400 rapes were reported, compared with 13,242 in 2012.

Property crimes also fell significantly, and of all the crimes the F.B.I. tracks — both violent offenses and nonviolent ones — the greatest drop-off, by percentage, was in arsons, which fell by 15.6 percent....

In all, murders fell by 6.9 percent, aggravated assaults by 6.6 percent and robberies by 1.8 percent, the bureau said. The numbers are based on reports from 12,723 law enforcement agencies that provided information to the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, W.Va.

According to the bureau, the number of violent crimes fell by 9.2 percent in cities with fewer than 10,000 people, compared with 3.6 percent for metropolitan counties. In the Midwest, violent crimes fell by 7.4 percent, in the South by 5.9, in the Northeast by 4.3 percent and in the West by 3.7 percent.

Among property crimes, burglary decreased by 8.1 percent, larceny theft by 4.7 percent and motor vehicle theft by 3.2 percent. Arsons fell by 20.4 percent in nonmetropolitan counties and 15.8 percent in metropolitan counties. The decrease in property crimes over all was 12 percent in nonmetropolitan counties and 7.4 percent in metropolitan counties, and the smallest drop-off in property crime occurred in the West, where it fell by 0.3 percent.

In compiling the rape numbers, the bureau used a new definition of rape that removes the word “forcible” and now includes “penetration, no matter how slight” of any orifice “without the consent of the victim,” either men or women. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in 2012 that changes were “long overdue.”

“This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes,” he said. The new definition, federal authorities said, reflected the majority of state rape statutes.

Besides highlighting how crime definition can impact crime statistics, these wonderful new data provide still further evidence that direct causal links between incarceration rates (or drug war reforms) and national crime rates are hard to establish. As regular readers know, the national prison population has declined a bit in recent years and there have been a wide array of reforms to sentencing laws and corrections policies that have resulted in significant numbers of early prisoner releases (especially in California due to the the Plata litigation and in the federal system due to the Fair Sentencing Act).

In the wake of recent sentencing reforms and in advocacy against further reforms, a number of folks have been predicting we would see a significant increase in crimes. And because crime rate are already at historically low levels, I have long been concerned that would soon start to see an uptick in offense rates. But, at least according to this new FBI data, the great modern crime decline is continuing nationwide even as we are starting to see a slow decline in prison populations and as slow retreat from the scope and severity of the modern drug war.  

That said, given that other federal accounting of crime rates showed a spike upward in 2012, as reported here, this FBI data ought not lead advocate of sentencing reforms to assert that we now know that there is no harmful public safety impact resulting from sentencing reforms.  The lastest crime data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported crime rates started going back up in 2012 (discussed here), and I have long stressing the need and importance of a careful state-by-state examination of where crime is going up and whether new (and still emerging) data on changes imprisonment rates and crimes rates provide critical new lessons concerning what we can now reasonably and reliably conclude about the connections between crime and punishment.

A few related posts on modern crime rates: 

February 19, 2014 at 08:21 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 19, 2014 9:25:30 AM

There does seem to be some conflation of inchoate crimes being potentially violent and actual violence. For example, some studies include enticement crimes like 2422(b) when there was no contact or merely possessing a firearm but not using it. I tend to be skeptical of "violent crime" statistics.

Posted by: Curious | Feb 19, 2014 9:27:09 AM

"Even with reductions in prison populations and end of pot prohibition, crime rates continue historic decline in 2013"

What a very bizarre headline.

1. There was no "end of pot prohibition" in 2013. Federal law did not change at all, and the two states that voted to legalize recreational use late in the year (in November referenda) did not actually change their law until last month. Of course 48 states (96% of them) continue to prohibit recreational pot anyway, in 2013 and now.

2. Nor would the "end of pot prohibition" in 2013 be expected to have any effect on the prison population even if it had happened, since next to no one gets a prison sentence for simple possession and personal use anyway.

Doug, were you smoking something when you wrote that headline???

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 19, 2014 1:11:49 PM

Fair points, Bill, though the fact that it was legal under state law in CO and WA as of the start of 2013 to possess/consume pot for recreational purposes is what defines my claim that blanket national/universal pot prohibition formally ended as of Jan 2013. And I stress that point in my headline because those concerned about ending the drug war often express concern about the possible crime impact of this kind of enhanced freedom. I just was eager to not that, at least according to the FBI at the start of 2013, the end of blanket national/universal pot prohibition did not result in an obvious uptick in traditional crimes.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 19, 2014 2:48:15 PM

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