« Former AG Eric Holder brags about his "too little, too late" approach to dealing with federal sentencing's myriad problems | Main | Realistic (though incomplete) discussion concerning how marijuana reform is not a panacea for mass incarceration »

August 14, 2016

"A reality check on crime: Rhetoric aside, new murder numbers are troubling"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective and important new piece from The Center for Public Integrity.  Here are excerpts:

There’s been a lot of rhetorical heat of late regarding crime in America — but not a lot of light.  Take Donald Trump.  He stirred the Republican convention with an apocalyptic vision of inner-city America as a Mad Max movie.  His first task, Trump said, “would be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities.” But wait. President Obama and others quickly countered that the imagery was nonsense — that violent crime today is dramatically lower than it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

There are multiple explanations for this confusion, and politics is only one of them. Reliance on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports is another; criminologists believe that many of the offenses tracked by the so-called UCR’s are terribly under-reported, and so are of limited utility.  And the reporting suffers from a serious time lag; the FBI’s full year report for 2015 won’t be released for another month or so.

Many criminologists believe that murder is the only truly reliable crime statistic because it is the only crime that’s virtually always reported.  Thus more recent reports on murder numbers are potentially illuminating, but have included a grab bag of cities, some of which showed murder increases while others showed decreases.

The Center for Public Integrity has gathered murder statistics for the first half of 2016 and compared them with totals for the first half of 2015, for America’s 10 most populous cities.... [which] contain some disturbing news. The 10-city total for January-June 2016 is up 20 percent over the previous year, and fully nine of the 10 municipalities showed increases, with big-percentage spikes in Phoenix, San Antonio, San Jose and especially Chicago. This seems to extend a jump in murders that showed killings up in early 2015 from 2014. The exception to the trend is the nation’s biggest city, New York, which so far in 2016 has sustained a drop in murders, continuing a trend there that stretches back to the early 1990s.

Is there an explanation for the broader uptick in America’s biggest cities? That’s harder to say. There’s talk of a “Ferguson effect,” in which cops are pulling back from aggressive enforcement — but little hard evidence. Some blame a rise in gang activity, while others point to a relentless proliferation of guns in the hands of young people. A less-explored, if admittedly imperfect explanation: more young people. Criminologists have traditionally argued that ages 15-24 are the crime-prone years, and the number of people in that age cohort has fluctuated over recent history. There were 42 million of them in 1980, when violent crime was rising, but the total was down to 38 million by 1990; crime started to ebb just a few years later, aided by the end of the crack epidemic. However, the number of 15-24-year-olds jumped to 44 million by 2012, and has stayed relatively close to that number since.

I consider this piece of reporting effective because it highlights that homicide numbers are generally the most reliable of crime statistics, and I consider it important because it highlights that homicide number tell a "disturbing" tale in 9 of the 10 largest US cities. (I also respect the piece's sensible statement that it is hard to say right now what accounts for the recent uptick in murders in America’s biggest cities.)

I have been especially troubled lately by demonstraby false assertions that crime is, right now, "actually at historic lows" (which is what former AG Holder claims in today's New York Times), when in fact it seems we hit modern recent historic homicide/crime lows in 2014.   Those eager to contest Trump's expressed concern for law and order are on solid ground when saying that homicide/crime is now still much, much lower than when Barack H. Obama (or George W. Bush or William J. Clinton) first took office.  But the hard cold facts, which ought no be avoided or fudged by any serious academic or policy advocate, indicate that homicide/crime started to increase in calendar year 2015 and may been in the midst of increasing further in 2016.

August 14, 2016 at 01:42 PM | Permalink


Why is NYC an exception?

What explains the recent uptick when as soon ago as two years ago it was different?

Posted by: Joe | Aug 14, 2016 3:05:03 PM

Holder said "level of crime."

This discussion focuses on murder rate. Not the same thing. This is true even if the "murder is the only truly reliable crime statistic."

Posted by: Joe | Aug 14, 2016 3:08:03 PM

I disagree with the statement that "murder is the only truly reliable crime statistic", especially in the context of claims that crime is now surging. The FBI has released crime data for the first six months of 2015 and the overall serious crime rate is still at historic lows, as shown in my post on "crime is still falling and certain to fall much further" at wwww.ricknevin.com/falling crime.html. The national murder rate was up in the first six months of 2015, but the robbery rate was down, and the burglary rate was on pace for its lowest ever rate since 1960. Furthermore, arrest rate trends through 2014 (and state data through 2015) show much larger declines for youth offending, and it would be unprecedented in the global history of crime data to see the overall crime rate rise over the next few years when youth offending is still setting new record lows every year.

Posted by: Rick Nevin | Aug 15, 2016 12:26:31 AM

Correct link for "Crime is still falling and certain to fall much further" - www.ricknevin.com/fallingcrime.html

Posted by: Rick Nevin | Aug 15, 2016 12:35:28 AM

Thou Shalt Not Kill. -- Sixth Commandment.
How many did the "people" kill? By "people" I mean the states on behalf of the people.

Posted by: Liberty 1st | Aug 15, 2016 8:28:43 AM

Professor Rosenfeld has published a paper that documents the substantial jump in homicide from 2014 to 2015 in 56 large American cities. He describes the homicide increase as "real and nearly unprecedented". See the NIJ paper on "Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise: Research Directions"

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | Aug 15, 2016 11:33:15 AM

I am familiar with Dr. Rosenfeld's paper documenting the increase in murders in 56 large cities from 2014 to 2015. What I object to is commentary that suggests this is a harbinger of a new national crime wave. Different crime categories can move in different directions for a year or two, and this is especially true for murder as the smallest crime category and therefore subject to more random variation in percentage terms, and even more so when we look at just large cities in a single year. Over longer time periods, crime waves are always characterized by a rise and fall in all property crimes and violent crimes, and there is no evidence that we are seeing that now. Moreover, adult onset of criminal offending is extremely rare, so the ongoing large declines in arrest rates for juveniles and young adults ensure that the overall crime rate, and the murder rate, will continue to fall over the next several years, and fall sharply over the next five to ten years. FYI - Rosenfeld was also a coauthor of a 2015 study providing more evidence that "lead exposure in the aggregate ... is a potent predictor of criminal outcomes" - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27035924 .

Posted by: Rick Nevin | Aug 15, 2016 1:19:05 PM

Over longer time periods, crime waves are always characterized by a rise and fall in all property crimes and violent crimes, and there is no evidence that we are seeing that now.

Posted by: David Bjornson | Aug 19, 2016 11:29:09 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB