Monday, January 27, 2014

A useful reminder of the challenge of assessing crime rates, lies, damn lies and statistics

With apologies to Mark Twain for tweaking his famed comment about lies, damned lies, and statistics, the title of this post stems from this interesting recent story about the challenges of crime rate measurement and statistics.  The story is from the Denver Post and it is headlined "Denver's top law enforcement officers disagree: Is crime up or down?". Here is how the piece starts:

Denver's top two law enforcement officials disagree on the answer to what ought to be a simple question: Is violent crime up or down?

Police Chief Robert White and District Attorney Mitch Morrissey aren't quibbling over minor details; they have a nearly 18 percentage-point difference in opinion about the way crime is trending.  Experts say their disagreement underscores the complexities of measuring and interpreting crime trends in a major city.

White has repeatedly said violent crime fell 8.6 percent last year. Morrissey wonders how that can be true when felony cases submitted to his office rose 9 percent during the same time.  "One of the things you can glean from it is that the crime rate is going up. It has to be.  (The police) are presenting more cases to us," Morrissey told The Denver Post. "The trend is that our caseloads are getting bigger and bigger.  How is that possible with the crime rate going down?  I don't know."

White stood by the 8.6 percent decline he has boasted about at public gatherings and in police stations, saying it was the result of better police work, even with fewer officers on the street.  "How about the fact that maybe the police department is doing a better job of arresting the right people?" White said.  "His cases are going up because the police are out there working their butt off and doing a better job.  That's not rocket science."

But there is some science to crime statistics, said Callie Rennison, an associate professor in the University of Colorado Denver's School of Public Affairs. "It's a hard, hard thing to measure, which of course makes it hard to say, 'Well is it really going up or really going down?' " she said.  "Anyone who tells you, 'Here's my stat, it's a perfect one,' immediately don't trust them. No stat is perfect, but some are less perfect than others."

January 27, 2014 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 14, 2013

If concerned principally about saving lives and public safety, can one reasonably oppose mass use red-light cameras?

The question in title of this post is prompted by this local news item from my own local paper headlined "Coalition says red-light cameras reducing accidents, saving lives." Here are excerpts:

The battle over whether red-light cameras are primarily lifesavers or money-makers is being re-fought in the General Assembly seven years after it began. Cameras placed at critical intersections, including 38 in Columbus, help dramatically reduce accidents and save lives, a statewide coalition said yesterday, pushing back against a legislative proposal that would all but eliminate the devices in Ohio.

House Bill 69, passed by the House this year, “is bad public policy that puts people at risk on Ohio roads,” Sgt. Brett Bauer of the Springfield Police Department said at a Statehouse news conference. Red-light cameras “are making roads safer in Springfield and across the state,” he said. The bill would limit cameras to school zones — and then only when an officer was present.

A coalition of police officials from Columbus and other cities, plus municipal officials, bicycle enthusiasts and safety advocates, appeared at the news conference alongside Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park, who is planning legislation to reform how the cameras may be used rather than repeal the use of cameras, as the House bill would do.

The most emotional advocate in favor of continuing using the cameras was Paul Oberhauser of Somerset, whose 31-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed in 2002 when a motorist ran a red light and hit her car in an intersection at 55 mph. “The year Sarah died, about 1,000 people nationally were killed in red-light accidents,” Oberhauser said. “I know you understand this carnage has got to stop.”...

Right-angle crashes are down 74 percent in Columbus, while rear-end crashes have dropped 25 percent at intersections with cameras, said Lt. Brenton Mull of the Columbus Division of Police. The city has 38 cameras at intersections scattered across the city. “It is a model program that should be emulated, not thrown out because someone doesn’t like getting a ticket from a red-light camera,” he said.

As regular readers (and my students) know well, I like to focus on traffic laws as a means to test whether and when citizens are really prepared to live up to oft-heard claims about the importance of public safety and saving innocent lives. In the context of debates over gun control, the death penalty, mass incarceration and other high-profile public policy criminal justice debates, there is often considerable competing claims and evidence concerning whether and when certain government policies actually do or do not save innocent lives and improve public safety. But this local article confirms my understanding that red-light cameras do tend to improve public safety at least somewhat (and does so in a way that actually raises revenue for localities rather than require significant expenditures).

I fully understand why persons principally concerned about privacy rights or due process or government graft might have real problems with widespread use and potential abuse of red-light cameras. But I really want to hear from readers if they think that those persons who say their principally criminal justice concerns relate to saving lives and public safety (as I do) have any sound basis for opposing mass use of these cameras.

November 14, 2013 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Do lead exposure realities continue to best explain modern crime-rate realities?

Every time I see reports new reports about crime rates in the United States or in certain regions, I cannot avoid continuing to think about the interesting research connecting crime rates and childhood exposure to lead.  Against that backdrop, I was pleased that Rick Nevin, a Senior Economist at ICF International, sent me this lengthy e-mail discussing his research and writing on this topic:

I want to thank you for yourJanuary blog about the Mother Jones article discussing my lead and crime research.  I also want to let you know that I have several posts at www.ricknevin.com that update my earlier analyses, and are closely related to recent posts:

Your October 28 post about the NYT editorial on "Why Prisons Are Shrinking" is related to my paper on The Plummeting USA Incarceration Rate showing that the recent incarceration rate decline reflects much steeper declines for younger adults (ages 18-30) born across years of declining lead exposure, partly offset by rising incarceration rates for older adults born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. 

Your October post on NYC murder rates is directly related to my post on Why is the Murder Rate Lower in New York City?

You had two posts in October about 2012 FBI and BJS data showing relatively stable crime rates related to my recent Lead Poisoning and Juvenile Crime Update paper showing that juvenile arrest rates are falling to record lows since 1980, reflecting ongoing declines in lead exposure over the 1990s, while arrest rates since 1980 have increased for older adults.  This paper also updates my crime trend graphs for Britain and Canada showing the predictive power of earlier lead exposure trends, with the same relationship between lead exposure and crime trends and the same shifts in arrest rates by age observed in the USA.  I also have a recent paper showing how lead exposure trends can explain Juvenile Arrest Rate Trends by Race and Gender

I also have a post on Lead Exposure and Murder in Latin America and a longer paper called The Answer is Lead Poisoning that updates and integrates findings from several of my related peer-reviewed studies.  All of the questions at The Questions link to this same paper.

I know the Kevin Drum story in Mother Jones seemed new and speculative to most readers, but there is actually a large body of research now supporting this relationship, and I have links to many peer-reviewed studies in my posted papers.  I don’t know of any other criminology theory that can explain both the rise and fall of crime in so many places -- and different trends by age, race, and gender -- or any theory that has so accurately predicted ongoing crime trends in so many different places for so many years.  I hope you will consider bringing some of this information to a broader audience through your blog, and I would welcome your use of any text or graphs from my posted papers.

Some recent related posts:

October 30, 2013 in National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Monday, October 28, 2013

NY Times editorial (poorly) urges better assessments of "Why Prisons Are Shrinking"

Today's New York Times has this new editorial headlined "Why Prisons Are Shrinking" making these important points:

The mandatory sentencing movement that swept the United States beginning in the 1970s drove the state prison population up from less than 200,000 to about 1.4 million today and made corrections the second-fastest-growing state expense after Medicaid.  But bipartisan sentencing reforms in a growing number of states are starting to reverse that trend — causing the prison population to decline by about 3.8 percent since 2009.

Underlying the state reforms is a relatively new and more sophisticated way of using data about the offender — including criminal history, drug abuse and instances of antisocial behavior — to assess the likelihood of that individual’s committing a new crime.  And by examining arrest, sentencing and probation data, the states can revise policies that might be driving people back into prison unnecessarily....

Despite the merits of a risk-assessment approach, a report issued earlier this year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center said that many states are still flying blind, because they don’t have the resources to gather data.  Moreover, the study noted, handling high-risk and low-risk offenders in the same way is a big mistake, because “low risk individuals have an increased likelihood of recidivism when they are oversupervised or receive treatment or services in the same programs as medium- and high-risk individuals.”

There are proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies.  More states need to adopt these approaches.

I am fully supportive of the ideas and themes in this editorial, but a lot more could and should be said at this dynamic moment of sentencing and corrections reform. For example, in the wake of the lastest crime data indicating a spike up in national violent and property crimes (discussed here), this editorial should be 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 conclude about the connections between crime and punishment.

In addition, I think this editorial (and other advocacy concerning these critical issues) ought to be urging sustained examination and analysis of a handful of big jurisdictions in which stories of crime and punishment have been especially dynamic over the last few years.  Specifically, I strongly believe that the big states of California, Illinois, New York and Texas, all of which have diverse urban and rural regions and all of which have changes its sentencing laws in diverse ways in recent years, should be a special focal point for sorting through and fairly assessing "proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies."

Last but not least, federal sentencing realities and reform discussions — as well as the interesting "new politics" of criminal justce reform — should be brought into these discussions ASAP.  The federal prison population continues to grow despite the reforms ushered in by the Fair Sentencing Act, and it is now unclear whether or when any additional proposed federal sentencing reforms will get through Congress and if any of these reforms will effectively incorporate "proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies."  More broadly, I think this editorial (and other advocacy concerning these critical issues) should be urging Congress — and especially those eager to support state rights and state-level solutions — to help provide states with the "the resources to gather data" and build on successful reform efforts.  (For example, I have long believe the feds ought to be conducting a kind of "race to the top" federal funding competition to motivate the better development and analysis of state-level crime and punishment data.)

Just a few of many recent related posts:

October 28, 2013 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Uh-oh: BJS reporting significant spike up in violent and property crime for 2012

Given the historic and unprecedented declines in US crime rates over the last 20 years, smart criminal justice observers knew it was only a question of when, not whether, crime rates were likely to at some point start going back up.  A new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that 2012 was the time for crime to start going back up.  This BJS press release, titled ominously "For Second Consecutive Year Violent And Property Crime Rates Increased In 2012," reports these basic details:

Violent and property crime rates rose for U.S. residents in 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. These estimates are based on data from the annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) which has collected information from victims of crime age 12 or older since 1973.

The violent crime rate (which includes rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault) rose from 22.6 victimizations per 1,000 persons in 2011 to 26.1 in 2012. Crime not reported to police and simple assault accounted for the majority of this increase. Violent victimizations not reported to police increased from 10.8 per 1,000 persons in 2011 to 14.0 in 2012, and simple assault rates rose from 15.4 to 18.2 per 1,000. The rate of violent crime reported to police did not change significantly from 2011 to 2012.

The rate of property crime (which includes burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft) increased from 138.7 per 1,000 households in 2011 to 155.8 in 2012, primarily due to an increase in theft. The rate of theft victimization increased from 104.2 per 1,000 households in 2011 to 120.9 in 2012.

In 2012, 44 percent of violent victimizations and 54 percent of serious violent victimizations were reported to police. These percentages were not statistically different from 2011. The percentage of property victimizations reported to police declined from 37 percent in 2011 to 34 percent in 2012....

Other findings from the report include the following:...

  • Violent crime rates increased slightly in 2012 for blacks but remained stable for whites and Hispanics.
  • In 2012, residents in urban areas continued to experience the highest rate of violent crime. Residents in the West had higher rates of violent victimization than residents in other regions of the country.
  • The composition of violent crime remained stable in 2012.  From 1993 to 2012, simple assaults made up approximately 70 percent of all violent victimizations.

To fully understand the impact and import of this new crime data, one needs to dig deeply in to all the numbers and definitions in this full 17-page BJS report.  A review of that document highlights, inter alia, that even these spiked up crime rates being reported for 2012 are still well below the rates reported in 2003, and also that homicide rates appear to be still at record lows.

That all said, the "Uh-oh" in the title of this post is because I fear policy-makers and politicians will focus mostly on the BJS headline stating simply "For Second Consecutive Year Violent And Property Crime Rates Increased In 2012."  A headline like that, especially if and when emphasized by those who oppose any progressive sentencing reform, could very well slow down or stop any developing federal sentencing reform momentum.

October 24, 2013 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Why are murder rates so high in Puerto Rico and might criminal law be to blame?

A thoughtful reader responded to this recent post on violent crime rates in New York City and Chicago with these interesting comments:

I wonder why I rarely see coverage on your blog of the high crime rate in Puerto Rico, which has a per capita murder rate six times higher than the rest of the U.S (and, which, if it were on the mainland, would probably be occupied by the National Guard by now). The USAO has been borrowing state prosecutors to process criminals; jails are overflowing; the federal government seeks capital punishment in some very egregious cases although the local constitution and popular opinion opposes it. These seem to be items of relevance to Sentencing Law and Policy.... Please help to draw attention to the depressing, yet interesting, criminal issues facing the island.

Upon my request, this helpful reader suggested the following links to draw more attention to the "depressing, yet interesting, criminal issues facing" that lovely island:

October 20, 2013 in National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, October 18, 2013

What the heck is NYC doing so right to reduce murders, and why can't Chicago replicate it?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable little news item from the New York Times headlined "New York Today: Murder Milestone." Here are the encouraging details:

The city’s murder rate keeps plummeting. So far this year, it’s down 26 percent, officials said.

If that trend holds, it would be the biggest one-year drop yet. And last year had the fewest murders in at least 50 years.

We asked the police bureau chief of The New York Times, Joseph Goldstein, to explain the decline. Some credit goes to a focus by the police on informal youth gangs known as crews, Mr. Goldstein told us.

The police, he said, “make the point that murders attributable to street violence are down even more significantly.” Last week, there were no murders at all.

The drop comes even as officers are doing only about half as many stop-and-frisks as they did at the beginning of last year.

Michael Jacobson, a former city correction commissioner and now a sociology professor at City University of New York, noted that last year’s total of 419 murders was down from 2,245 in 1990.

“If you asked any criminologist 20 years ago, ‘Can it go from 2,200 to 400?’ they would have thought you were insane,” he said. “But if it can go from 2,200 to 400, why can’t it go from 400 to 200?”

This wonderful reality should be celebrated by everyone, though it ought to be especially cheered by those who claimed that recent violent crime declines in the NYC were attributable primarily to very aggressive stop-and-frisk policies and practices. Also of note, especially for sentencing fans, is that this continuing decline in NYC murders is taking place within in a state without the death penalty and with a relatively low (and recently declining) prison population.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation, and a major city in a major state (Chicago, Illinois) is having continuing big problems with violent crime during the same period. Indeed, while folks in Chicago are now very busy having an interesting and robust debate over whether a law proposing mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession is a good way to fight violent crime (as documented in this effective op-ed and this prior post), I wonder if they might use their time and energy more effectively by trying everything they can to replicate everything that folks in NYC are doing lately.

Some related posts on modern crime rates, especially in urban areas: 

October 18, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Monday, September 16, 2013

FBI releases 2012 crime statistics showing stability in relatively low crime rates

12violentcrimeoffensefigureAs explained in this official press release, today the FBI released its accounting of 2012 crime in the United States based on its "statistical compilation of offense and arrest data reported by law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR)  program."  And here are the highlights of this data:

The FBI estimated that in 2012, the number of violent crimes increased 0.7 percent, according to the figures released today.  However, property crimes decreased 0.9 percent, marking the 10th straight year of declines for these offenses, collectively.

The 2012 statistics show that the estimated rate of violent crime was 386.9 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the property crime rate was 2,859.2 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants.  While the violent crime rate remained virtually unchanged when compared to the 2011 rate, the property crime rate declined 1.6 percent.

I tend not to get too moved by year-to-year variations in these crime statistics, but long-term patterns are always worth noting.  And the violent crime data reported here (and via the graph reprinted above), remain encouraging: "When considering 5- and 10-year trends, the 2012 estimated violent crime total was 12.9 percent below the 2008 level and 12.2 below the 2003 level."

September 16, 2013 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 11, 2013

New National Academy of Sciences effort seeking to unpack the crime decline

As reported via this helpful piece at The Crime Report, some really important and smart folks are now hard at work trying to understand fully the modern US crime decline. Here are the basics of the effort as explained in the start of this linked report:

The crime level has dropped in the United States over the past two decades, but definitive explanations are lacking. With funding from the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, the National Academy of Sciences has organized a project to address that important issue. In a chat with The Crime Report’s Washington Bureau Chief Ted Gest, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis — who heads the effort — explains the project’s aims, reports on the topics covered at the first sessions in Washington in June, and explains why it would be a “bad bet” to assume the crime drop will continue indefinitely.

The Crime Report: How is this project organized?

Richard Rosenfeld: It is a so-called “roundtable” on crime trends.  The group met in June, and we plan to hold five more sessions over the next three years to hear from experts about various aspects of changes in crime rates over time, both in the United States and elsewhere.  We’re primarily focusing on changes in the United States over the last several decades, but at our first meeting we also talked about centuries-long changes in Europe and the U.S., going back to colonial America.  This is a broad and comprehensive look at changes over time in crime, and some of the factors connected with those changes.

TCR: Who is involved?

Rosenfeld: There are 16 members of the roundtable.  Twelve are academics, including nine criminologists: myself, Eric Baumer of Florida State University, Shawn Bushway of the University at Albany (SUNY), Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge, Susan Herman of Pace University, Dan Isom of the University of Missouri-St. Louis (a former police chief); Janet Lauritsen of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Maria Velez of the University of New Mexico, and David Weisburd of George Mason University and The Hebrew University.  The other academics are public health expert David Hemenway of Harvard; historian Randolph Roth of Ohio State University, and economist Jose Scheinkman of Princeton University.  Non-academics in the group are Jim Bueermann, a former police chief who now heads the Police Foundation, District Attorney George Gascon of San Francisco; Maxine Hayes, Washington State Health Officer, and Florida Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman.

TCR: Tell us about the first two sessions.

Rosenfeld: We met in Washington, D.C., for two days in June. The five public sessions covered these topics: U.S. crime trends in historical perspective, trends disaggregated by offense type, regional and local variations; gender, race and ethnicity of victims and offenders; and U.S. crime trends in international perspective. The content of the presentations, all of which were made by roundtable members, may be seen at this site.

At our next meeting, which will also be in Washington, at an early December date to be determined, we will focus on the “lead hypothesis,” that the removal of lead from paint and gasoline resulted in crime declines some years later and may largely explain the crime drop.  We’ll hear from people who have researched that topic.  We haven’t yet set the agendas for the four sessions that will follow that.

A few related posts on modern crime rates: 

August 11, 2013 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, August 05, 2013

"Va. gun crime drops again as firearm sales soar"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable big article recently appearing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Here are excerpts:

Gun-related violent crime continues to drop in Virginia as the sales of firearms continue to soar, a pattern that one local criminologist finds interesting “given the current rhetoric about strengthening gun laws.”

Major gun crime collectively dropped for a fourth consecutive year statewide, while firearms sales climbed to a new record in 2012 with 490,119 guns purchased in 444,844 transactions — a 16 percent rise over 2011, according to federally licensed gun dealer sales estimates obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The proliferation of guns occurred as the total number of major reported crimes committed with all types of firearms in Virginia dropped 5 percent, from 4,618 offenses in 2011 to 4,378 last year, according to Virginia State Police data.  Looking back over seven years, total firearm sales in Virginia have risen a staggering 101 percent from 2006 to 2012, while gun-related crime has dropped 28 percent during that period.

“This appears to be additional evidence that more guns don’t necessarily lead to more crime,” said Thomas R. Baker, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who specializes in research methods and criminology theory.

“It’s a quite interesting trend given the current rhetoric about strengthening gun laws and the presumed effect it would have on violent crimes,” Baker added.  “While you can’t conclude from this that tougher laws wouldn’t reduce crime even more, it really makes you question if making it harder for law-abiding people to buy a gun would have any effect on crime.”

But Josh Horwitz, the leader of a national gun-control group, does not find the comparison of gun crime to legal gun sales particularly significant, and views any perceived correlation between the two sets of data as essentially meaningless.  “Guns sold incident to a background check are less likely to be involved in crimes than guns sold without a background check,” said Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “So the real question — which I don’t think we really know — is what’s the level of gun sales without a background check?

“In other words, if people who buy those guns and have a background check, and keep those guns and don’t sell them, then you would not expect that those guns would affect the crime rate,” Horwitz said. “The important analysis is not the total number of guns sold with a background check, but rather the number of guns sold without a background check.”...

Baker cautioned against drawing any conclusions that more guns in the hands of Virginians are causing a corresponding drop in gun crime, as some academics and gun-rights supporters have argued.  “To substantiate (that) argument, you would need to eliminate a number of other factors that could potentially explain away the relationship of more guns, less crime in Virginia,” Baker said. “Only if the relationship remained after controlling for additional factors could a researcher be more comfortable making the claim that more guns lead to less crime.  But what the data does show is that the ‘more guns, less crime argument’ is certainly possible.”...

Although overall gun-related crime dropped 5 percent last year, murders and non-negligent manslaughter deaths committed with firearms rose 6 percent from 190 in 2011 to 201 last year. But killings with handguns dropped 3 percent.  Killings involving firearms of unknown type increased 42 percent, from 62 in 2011 to 88 in 2012.

Robberies accounted for the largest drop in gun-related crime, falling 11 percent from 2,935 offenses in 2011 to 2,508 last year. Robberies involving handguns dropped 7 percent from year to year....

Although expansion of background checks is the main goal of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Horwitz said his group supports the tighter controls on firearms that were enacted into law in Colorado and New York after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut that killed 26.

He acknowledged that those measures — aside from the background checks — will not affect the gun-related crime rate. “It won’t reduce crime,” Horwitz said. “The point is that it decreases the lethality of crime.” He was referring to so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

August 5, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The great NYC homicide decline continues

As reported in this New York Times article, the "number of homicides on record in New York City has dropped significantly during the first half of the year — to 154 from 202 in the same period last year — surprising even police officials who have long been accustomed to trumpeting declining crime rates in the city." Here is more:

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly attributed much of the drop to a new antigang strategy meant to suppress retaliatory violence among neighborhood gangs. Police officials also credited their efforts at identifying and monitoring abusive husbands whose behavior seemed poised to turn lethal.

The recent decrease in violence is all the more striking because last year the department recorded the fewest homicides since it began a reliable method of compiling crime statistics half a century ago. The police recorded 419 murders in 2012.

“By far, it was the lowest, and guess what?” Commissioner Kelly said Friday morning before going on to announce that the number of murders this year was running about 25 percent below even that record year. “In my business, in our business, this is miraculous. These are lives that are being saved.”

The relationship between the drop in murders and the department’s controversial policy of stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking people on the street was hard to immediately divine.

On the one hand, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly have cited the declining murder rate as a vindication of their policing strategies, which rely heavily on the stop-and-frisk tactic. On the other, stop-and-frisks have dropped off considerably in the last 15 months, suggesting that the drop in murders might have been a result of other factors.

In the first three months of 2012, police records indicate, there were 203,500 stops. But in the first three months of this year, the police recorded fewer than 100,000 stops.

Over the last two decades, the decline in murders in New York has been greater than in other parts of the country. (In the early 1990s, when Mr. Kelly spent a little more than a year as police commissioner, the first of his two stints in the job, the city was coping with about 2,000 murders annually.)...

Noting how the latest reduction of violence coincided with a diminishing number of street stops, some civil rights lawyers have grown more vocal in questioning not only the legality but also the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk tactics.

But police commanders point to what they say is the long half-life of the deterrent effect of stop-and-frisk, saying that criminals may decide to leave their guns at home because they have been stopped in the past, even if the odds of a stop have decreased in recent months. And the police say the decrease in violence has most likely led to a corresponding decrease in suspicious behavior, which results in fewer stops.

June 29, 2013 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

So far in 2013, more investment in cops means less homicides in Chicago

As reported in this interesting front-page New York Times article, headlined "Chicago Tactics Put Major Dent in Killing Trend," it seems Chicago is so far have measurable success in 2013 with a notable form of "hot spot" policing. Here is how the lengthy article begins:

A year after this city drew new attention for soaring gun violence and gang bloodshed, creating a political test for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in President Obama’s hometown, Chicago has witnessed a drop in shootings and crime. Killings this year have dipped to a level not seen since the early 1960s.

So far in 2013, Chicago homicides, which outnumbered slayings in the larger cities of New York and Los Angeles last year, are down 34 percent from the same period in 2012. As of Sunday night, 146 people had been killed in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city — 76 fewer than in the same stretch in 2012 and 16 fewer than in 2011, a year that was among the lowest for homicides during the same period in 50 years.

In recent months, as many as 400 officers a day, working overtime, have been dispatched to just 20 small zones deemed the city’s most dangerous. The police say they are tamping down retaliatory shootings between gang factions by using a comprehensive analysis of the city’s tens of thousands of suspected gang members, the turf they claim and their rivalries. The police also are focusing on more than 400 people they have identified as having associations that make them the most likely to be involved in a murder, as a victim or an offender.

As Mr. Emanuel, who has said he intends to run for re-election, begins the second half of his first term, it is unclear whether the months of lessened violence will generate a lasting trend, particularly given a spring of rainy, chilly weather here that some experts say may have kept people off the streets and contributed to the relative calm.

Homicides have also decreased in New York, by more than 22 percent as of early this month, and in Los Angeles, by more than 17 percent.

“It’s good, but not good enough,” Mr. Emanuel said in an interview of the city’s improving homicide statistics. He added that a parent had approached him in one of the neighborhoods now saturated with police officers, saying she had started to feel comfortable allowing her child to walk to school. “That to me is the biggest, most important, most significant measure — that a mother feels comfortable and confident enough where she didn’t in past years to have her child walk to school.”

Critics question whether the city can continue to pay for the added police presence. By the end of April, $31.9 million of the $38 million set aside in the city budget for police overtime for the year had been spent, city records show.

Leaders of the police union, who describe some of the current efforts as “smoke and mirrors,” caution that the dismal statistics of 2012 are being used to paint a falsely upbeat picture of 2013, and say they doubt such intense policing efforts are financially sustainable in any major city without expanding the force.

“It seems a little soon to know whether this is a long-term trend,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “I think everyone in Chicago hopes it is very much a trend. I wouldn’t pop the Champagne yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

In some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods — even those where statistics suggest clear improvement — some residents say they feel as unsafe as ever, and worry that the closing this fall of the largest number of elementary schools in recent memory may force schoolchildren to venture down blocks controlled by gangs to get to new schools.

Some related posts on modern crime rates, especially in urban areas: 

June 11, 2013 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 11, 2013

How should we understand and react to a small uptick in San Diego's crime rate?

330317_1n11crime_1_t940The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this local article which carries the (problematic?  incomplete?) big and bold headline "County crime increased in 2012."  Here are the basics of the (important? problematic? fascinating?) local California crime story:

The decades-long trend of declining crime across San Diego County took a turn last year, when reported incidents increased by 7 percent.  Regional law enforcement officials say they are concerned, but not certain if there is cause for alarm.

“Nobody in law enforcement likes it when the crime rate goes up,” Sheriff Bill Gore said Wednesday, adding that it is cause for concern.  “Crime rates have been going down for 30 years. We didn’t think crime would go to zero.”

The 2012 numbers were released Wednesday by the San Diego Association of Governments, which each year tallies the seven major crimes tracked by the FBI: homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor theft.

The countywide figures, in rounded numbers, show that reported crimes rose from 76,000 in 2011 to 81,000 in 2012, a 7 percent increase. Violent crimes rose 7 percent, property crimes rose 6 percent.

Crime rose by 7 percent within the city of San Diego, which had 35,000 crimes in 2011 compared to 37,000 in 2012.  Incorporated cities and unincorporated county areas served by the Sheriff’s Department saw an 8 percent increase in crime, from about 16,000 to 17,000.

The local numbers seem to echo, and exceed, a national upward trend in crime figures. “Nationally, for the first six months of 2012, we saw a less than 2 percent increase in the numbers — a slight uptick,” said James Austin, president of nonprofit JFA Institute, a Washington D.C.-based criminal justice research and consulting firm.  “By region, most of that increase is produced in the Northeast and the Western region, and San Diego is part of the Western region. So that is consistent.”

With the 2012 increase in crimes, authorities around San Diego County have asked themselves “Why?” and looked for ways to slam on the brakes.  Some are ready to place at least some of the blame on the state’s public safety realignment law, also known as AB 109. “It’s too early to say,” said Cynthia Burke, director of SANDAG’s criminal justice research division. “It’s something law enforcement is tracking.”...

San Diego police Chief Bill Lansdowne pointed out that in 2011, the city had its lowest crime rate in 42 years. Then came last year’s spike.  There were more homicides, rapes, assaults, home burglaries, larcenies and car thefts.  The only crime category to drop was nonresidential burglaries.

“I believe AB 109 is starting to have an effect on our crime,” Lansdowne said.  He said lower numbers of police officers, because of budget cuts, were also a likely factor.  Gore, too, said financial constraints and staff reductions have had their effect, and he hopes to fill 250 empty deputy positions by mid-2014.

In recent months, Lansdowne said, the department has focused crime-fighting efforts on areas seeing the greatest increases. One result, he said, is that homicides are down by 36 percent so far this year, compared to the same time last year, and gang-related crime is down 86 percent.

He also is hiring more officers, and looking forward to San Diego’s share of a $1.6 million state grant to county law agencies to address AB 109 issues.  Within the county last year, Ramona saw the largest increase in crime — 28 percent — with 546 crimes reported in 2011 and 699 in 2012.  Most of the crime was burglary and theft, said Lt. James Bovet, in charge of the town’s sheriff’s station....

Bovet said he was watching closely last year as the mountain community’s crime figures edged up. “Our overall crime rate is low, but this increase was so dramatic, we had to take some quick steps,” he said. “We analyzed our crime problems and prioritized out staff with more deputies per shift. I tasked my deputies here to pretty much talk weekly to a probationer. We do more to keep track of our known criminals and parolees.”

Bovet said deputies also broke up two burglary rings late last year, making several arrests. “I can tell you, this year, we’ve seen significant decreases in crime,” Bovet said. “We’ll keep monitoring it and do what we can do.”

Assuming the data reported here (both in the text and in the chart) is accurate, the real question/story here for sentencing fans is how should we come to understand this data and react thereto.  For folks who do not like the SCOTUS Plata ruling and/or the realignment plan that it prompted, it is real easy to claim that this crime increase is the fault of activist judges and Governor Jerry Brown.  But for folks who want to defend the SCOTUS Plata ruling and/or the realignment plan that it prompted, it is also real easy to claim that local authorities failed to plan properly for realignment and/or that modern budget cuts and limited funding for police and realted social services is the primary reason crime ticked up.

Perhaps more importantly, perhaps the right "story" and reaction thereto is celebration of government improvements, not finger-pointing and government blame.  As the chart above reveals, crime rates in San Diego, even after the SCOTUS Plata ruling and the realignment plan, remain a historically low level.  And it seems that an small uptick in crime led to local police department reviewing closely whether and how they could do more effectivel crime-fighting for less money.  And, at least according to the "cops on the beat," it now appears that despite realignment AND budget cuts, now  in some areas "homicides are down by 36 percent so far this year, compared to the same time last year, and gang-related crime is down 86 percent."

In other words, despite the short-hand bad-news headline of "County crime increased in 2012," the real story is much more mixed, and a lot of different stories can be told about whether and why the local crime glass is half-full or half-empty.  Unfortunately, while I have the time and energy to think this all through and am inclined to spin this story in a positive way, I suspect the average voter and average politician instead only has time to see the headline and to (over)react to what seems like very bad news concerning both crime and punishment in California.

Some related posts on the great crime decline and modern crime rates: 

April 11, 2013 in Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

"Crime That No Longer Pays: Bank Robberies on the Decline as Criminals See Greater Rewards in Online Theft"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new piece from the Wall Street Journal.  Here are excerpts:

The recent surge in cybercrime comes with a silver lining: Bank robberies are plummeting, as criminals seem to wise up to the fact that heists just don't pay like they used to.

Bank holdups have been nearly cut in half over the past decade — to 5.1 robberies per 100 U.S. banks in 2011.  Though the nationwide crime rate is dropping, the decline in bank robberies far exceeds the decline in other crimes, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data.  Preliminary 2012 figures released last week show the lowest tally in decades: 3,870 bank robberies, down from more than 5,000 a year earlier.

Bank-security experts and former FBI agents attribute the decline to stepped-up security and tougher sentencing for bank robbers.  Many also say that more recently, sophisticated criminals are recognizing bank robbery as a high-risk, low-reward crime and are migrating online....

Though electronic bank crimes have taken far more money than physical robberies in recent years, the shift has resulted in less violence.  In 2011, bank robberies left 88 injured and 13 dead — roughly 40% lower than both statistics for 2003, the earliest FBI figures available....

The crime hit its peak in 1991, with nearly 9,400 robberies, and is still favored by some. Last month, after a bank robbery in Elgin, Ill., police arrested Jeremy Evans of nearby Carol Stream, who the FBI believes is the so-called Ray-Bandit.  He is linked to 17 bank robberies in seven states while sporting a pair of Ray-Ban-style sunglasses.

Increasingly, though, transactions have migrated to automated teller machines and online — and criminals have followed them.  Bill Rehder, who investigated bank robberies for the FBI for 31 years, said the decline began in the 1990s, when banks began bolstering security at branches, including bulletproof barriers in front of tellers and vestibules that locked criminals inside.....

Also helping are federal sentencing guidelines for convicted bank robbers introduced in 1987, which allow judges to add years for a criminal history or use of a weapon, security experts said.  In the early 1980s, a former Los Angeles antiques dealer named Eddie Dodson single-handedly robbed 64 banks, before pleading guilty to eight robberies and serving 10 years in prison.  After his release, he robbed eight more banks, said Mr. Rehder, the FBI agent who helped catch him — twice.

Compare that with the case of Harold Walden, a teenager convicted in 1992 of robbing five banks who is serving a 73-year prison sentence.  "Once you're caught now, you're going to get hammered," Mr. Rehder said.  "That acts not only as a deterrent, but it also locks these [serial robbers] up for a long time."

Among the tough normative issues that these kinds of crime stories raise is the fundamental question of whether, as a result of formal and informal moves to replace real-world behaviors with more digital/cyber activities, we should be clebrating that there is much less violent crime even though there may now be much more overall crime.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline: 

February 5, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 03, 2013

"Why Police Lie Under Oath" and deeper challenges involving criminal justice metrics

03POLICE-articleInlineThe title of this post is the partially drawn from the headline of this opinion piece in today's New York Times, which was authored by my Ohio State College of Law colleague Michelle Alexander.  Here is how it starts:

Thousands of people plead guilty to crimes every year in the United States because they know that the odds of a jury’s believing their word over a police officer’s are slim to none. As a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but?  As one of my colleagues recently put it, “Everyone knows you have to be crazy to accuse the police of lying.”

But are police officers necessarily more trustworthy than alleged criminals?  I think not. Not just because the police have a special inclination toward confabulation, but because, disturbingly, they have an incentive to lie.  In this era of mass incarceration, the police shouldn’t be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so.

That may sound harsh, but numerous law enforcement officials have put the matter more bluntly. Peter Keane, a former San Francisco Police commissioner, wrote an article in The San Francisco Chronicle decrying a police culture that treats lying as the norm: “Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath.  It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law.  Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”

Though focused on police practices, this piece goes on to touch upon the broader systemic problems that can result from "get tough" metrics (much too?) often being used by police and prosecutors and rewarded by legislatures:

Police departments have been rewarded in recent years for the sheer numbers of stops, searches and arrests. In the war on drugs, federal grant programs like the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program have encouraged state and local law enforcement agencies to boost drug arrests in order to compete for millions of dollars in funding.  Agencies receive cash rewards for arresting high numbers of people for drug offenses, no matter how minor the offenses or how weak the evidence.  Law enforcement has increasingly become a numbers game.  And as it has, police officers’ tendency to regard procedural rules as optional and to lie and distort the facts has grown as well. Numerous scandals involving police officers lying or planting drugs — in Tulia, Tex. and Oakland, Calif., for example — have been linked to federally funded drug task forces eager to keep the cash rolling in....

The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial incentives that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous. One lie can destroy a life, resulting in the loss of employment, a prison term and relegation to permanent second-class status. The fact that our legal system has become so tolerant of police lying indicates how corrupted our criminal justice system has become by declarations of war, “get tough” mantras, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for locking up and locking out the poorest and darkest among us.

And, no, I’m not crazy for thinking so.

As regular readers likely realize, I am a big fan of data and metrics in the operation of modern criminal justice systems (which is, surely, a by-product of the fact that I am much more drawn to consequentialist rather than retributivist theories of punishment). Thus, as a general matter, I am not opposed to the reality that law enforcement, as well as other parts of our modern criminal justice system, "has increasingly become a numbers game." But, as this opinion piece highlights, we need to be conscious and cautious about whether the metrics were are using are the right ones and about whether these metrics may be harmfully distorting the ways in which various criminal justice actors go about doing their jobs.

I have been giving extra thought to these issues lately in part because of this recent post noting a prosecutor taking with pride about extra long federal sentences and this recent post about the US Sentencing Commission's new Booker report noting that the number of federal offenders has substantially increased in recent years.  But all sort of other major criminal justice issues and debates can (and should) turn on debates over metrics.  For example, does more guns, as some contend, really result in less crime?  And what will and should be the metrics used to judge the success or failings of  modern marijuana reform efforts? 

Staying focused on sentencing issues, the nationwide movement toward so-called "evidence-based" reforms also has, hiding deep within, really hard questions concerning what kinds of "evidence" are most valid and most important in the continuing evolution of sentencing systems.  Is saving a lot of taxpayer money a marker of sentencing reform success if crime ticks up a bit?  How about simply having fewer persons with liberty restricted by being in prison or subject to criminal justice control? (Maybe now that Nate Silver has some free time until the next election cycle gets into full swing, perhaps he can focus his impressive data-crunching skill on these issues and all the challenges they present.)

Some recent and older related posts implicating metric challenges:

February 3, 2013 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (46) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Still more notable (and complicated) crime data from FBI for start of 2012

Ucr_logoLargely lost this week in all the debates — and (excessive?) media coverage of the debates — over gun control was this news via the FBI concerning its latest data on crime in the first six months of 2012.  The FBI press release is given the heading "Early 2012 Crime Stats: Slight Uptick in Crime," and one needs to drill down into specifics in order to see how dynamic this latest data story concerning reported crimes in this first half of 2012 vary by type and region:

Two of the four offenses in the violent crime category actually showed overall decreases when compared with data from the first six months of 2011 — murders dropped 1.7 percent and forcible rapes fell 1.4 percent.  But the number of robberies increased 2.0 percent and aggravated assaults 2.3 percent.

At a regional level, the West saw the largest overall jump in violent crime — up 3.1 percent — followed by a rise of 2.5 percent in the Midwest and 1.1 each percent in the South and the Northeast.  Despite these increases, the number of murders fell 4.8 percent in the South and 2.4 percent in the Northeast.

The only violent crime offense category that showed increases in all four regions of the country was aggravated assault, which was up 4.4 percent in the Midwest, 2.4 percent in the West, 1.7 percent in the South, and 0.8 percent in the Northeast.

On the property crime front, all three offense categories showed overall increases — 1.9 percent for larceny-theft, 1.7 percent for motor vehicle theft, and 0.1 percent for burglary.

Regionally, the West saw the largest rise in property crime — up 4.7 percent, followed closely by the Northeast at 4.0 percent. The Midwest was up 1.3 percent, but the South actually showed a decrease of 1.4 percent.

For individual property crime offense categories, statistics indicate that the West had the largest increase in the number of burglaries (up 6.7 percent) and motor vehicle thefts (up 8.1 percent). And the Northeast had the largest rise in the number of larceny-thefts, which were up 4.5 percent.

Notwithstanding the "crime is up" central story, I see the decline in murders and rapes nationally (and the very sizeable drop in the South in particular) to be an important bit of very good news.  To provide some rough numbers, I believe the nearly 5% decline in murders in the South means there are a couple hundred more persons in that region still alive than if murder rates had been merely stable. 

The uptick in robbery and property crimes is, of course, disappointing and perhaps distressing.  But I wonder, were we able to drill down further into these numbers, if we might find an especially warm start to 2012, along with the ever-growing popularity of easy-to-pilfer tablets and smart-phones, provides a relatively benign account of possible explanatory factors for the uptick.

Finally, as the must-read new Mother Jones article on crime rates still echoes in my brain, there may just be one simple explanation for this all: lead.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline: 

January 16, 2013 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Should we thank unleaded gas and the EPA for the great modern crime decline?

Lead_Crime_325The provocative question in the title of this post comes from this new provocative Mother Jones article by Kevin Drum headlined "America's Real Criminal Element: Lead." The lengthy piece is probably the first "must read" of 2013 for crime and punishment fans, and here are a few excerpts which highlight why:

[I]t's not just New York that has seen a big drop in crime. In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early '90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline. Washington, DC, didn't have either Giuliani or Bratton, but its violent crime rate has dropped 58 percent since its peak. Dallas' has fallen 70 percent. Newark: 74 percent. Los Angeles: 78 percent. There must be more going on here than just a change in policing tactics in one city. But what?

There are, it turns out, plenty of theories.  When I started research for this story, I worked my way through a pair of thick criminology tomes. One chapter regaled me with the "exciting possibility" that it's mostly a matter of economics: Crime goes down when the economy is booming and goes up when it's in a slump. Unfortunately, the theory doesn't seem to hold water — for example, crime rates have continued to drop recently despite our prolonged downturn.

Another chapter suggested that crime drops in big cities were mostly a reflection of the crack epidemic of the '80s finally burning itself out. A trio of authors identified three major "drug eras" in New York City, the first dominated by heroin, which produced limited violence, and the second by crack, which generated spectacular levels of it. In the early '90s, these researchers proposed, the children of CrackGen switched to marijuana, choosing a less violent and more law-abiding lifestyle. As they did, crime rates in New York and other cities went down.

Another chapter told a story of demographics: As the number of young men increases, so does crime. Unfortunately for this theory, the number of young men increased during the '90s, but crime dropped anyway. There were chapters in my tomes on the effect of prison expansion. On guns and gun control. On family. On race. On parole and probation. On the raw number of police officers. It seemed as if everyone had a pet theory. In 1999, economist Steven Levitt, later famous as the coauthor of Freakonomics, teamed up with John Donohue to suggest that crime dropped because of Roe v. Wade; legalized abortion, they argued, led to fewer unwanted babies, which meant fewer maladjusted and violent young men two decades later.

But there's a problem common to all of these theories: It's hard to tease out actual proof. Maybe the end of the crack epidemic contributed to a decline in inner-city crime, but then again, maybe it was really the effect of increased incarceration, more cops on the beat, broken-windows policing, and a rise in abortion rates 20 years earlier.  After all, they all happened at the same time....

Even low levels have a significant effect. So we're back to square one. More prisons might help control crime, more cops might help, and better policing might help. But the evidence is thin for any of these as the main cause.  What are we missing?...

A molecule? That sounds crazy.  What molecule could be responsible for a steep and sudden decline in violent crime?  Well, here's one possibility: Pb(CH2CH3)4....

The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn't paint. It was leaded gasoline.  And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period.  Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted....

During the '70s and '80s, the introduction of the catalytic converter, combined with increasingly stringent Environmental Protection Agency rules, steadily reduced the amount of leaded gasoline used in America, but [researcher Jessica Wolpaw] Reyes discovered that this reduction wasn't uniform.  In fact, use of leaded gasoline varied widely among states, and this gave Reyes the opening she needed.  If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you'd expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too.  Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly.  And that's exactly what she found.

Meanwhile, [researcher Rick] Nevin ... in 2007 he published a new paper looking at crime trends around the world. This way, he could make sure the close match he'd found between the lead curve and the crime curve wasn't just a coincidence. Sure, maybe the real culprit in the United States was something else happening at the exact same time, but what are the odds of that same something happening at several different times in several different countries?

Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match.  Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany.  Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn't fit the theory. "No," he replied. "Not one."

We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.

Like many good theories, the gasoline lead hypothesis helps explain some things we might not have realized even needed explaining. For example, murder rates have always been higher in big cities than in towns and small cities. We're so used to this that it seems unsurprising, but Nevin points out that it might actually have a surprising explanation—because big cities have lots of cars in a small area, they also had high densities of atmospheric lead during the postwar era. But as lead levels in gasoline decreased, the differences between big and small cities largely went away. And guess what? The difference in murder rates went away too. Today, homicide rates are similar in cities of all sizes. It may be that violent crime isn't an inevitable consequence of being a big city after all.

The gasoline lead story has another virtue too: It's the only hypothesis that persuasively explains both the rise of crime in the '60s and '70s and its fall beginning in the '90s. Two other theories — the baby boom demographic bulge and the drug explosion of the '60s — at least have the potential to explain both, but neither one fully fits the known data. Only gasoline lead, with its dramatic rise and fall following World War II, can explain the equally dramatic rise and fall in violent crime.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline: 

January 3, 2013 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this interesting new web-based project now up at Slate.  Here is how authors Chris Kirk and Dan Kois explain the project:

The answer to the simple question in that headline is surprisingly hard to come by.  So Slate and the Twitter feed @GunDeaths are collecting data for our crowdsourced interactive.  This data is necessarily incomplete.  But the more people who are paying attention, the better the data will be.  You can help us draw a more complete picture of gun violence in America.  If you know about a gun death in your community that isn’t represented here, please tweet @GunDeaths with a citation. (If you’re not on Twitter, you can email slatedata@gmail.com.)  And if you’d like to use this data yourself for your own projects, it’s open.  You can download it here.

January 3, 2013 in National and State Crime Data, On blogging, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Is there really a simple explanation for record-low homicide rate in NYC (or the increase in Chicago)?

CRIME-graphic-articleInlineThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this new piece in today's New York Times headlined "414 Homicides in ’12 Is a Record Low for New York City."  The article includes lots of interesting data and stories concerning homicides in NYC, and here are excerpts:

Murders in New York have dropped to their lowest level in over 40 years, city officials announced on Friday, even as overall crimes increased slightly because of a rise in thefts — a phenomenon based solely on robberies of iPhones and other Apple devices.

There were 414 recorded homicides so far in 2012, compared with 515 for the same period in 2011, city officials said.  That is a striking decline from murder totals in the low-2,000s that were common in the early 1990s, and is also below the record low: 471, set in 2009.  “The essence of civilization is that you can walk down the street without having to look over your shoulder,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said.

Mr. Bloomberg acclaimed the accomplishment during a graduation ceremony for more than 1,000 new police officers at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  He attributed the low murder rate to the department’s controversial practice of “stop, question and frisk,” in which people are stopped on the street and questioned by officers, and aggressive hot-spot policing, in which officers are deployed to areas with crime spikes.  Shootings are also down for the year so far. The number of murders is the lowest since 1963, when improvements in the recording of data were made.

The Police Department said thefts of Apple products had risen by 3,890, which was more than the overall increase in “major crimes.”  In the last two decades, trumpeting declines in crime trends has become an annual end-of-the-year event, even when the numbers inched up.

But figures alone do not tell the whole story, and several homicides this year stood out as particularly disturbing, given the age of the victims and the manner of death.  Detectives described the stabbing deaths of two children at the hands of their nanny inside the bathroom of their Manhattan apartment in October as among the most horrific crimes they could recall. “I think those images get embedded in the minds of detectives more than other crime scenes,” said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union that represents detectives, adding, “It certainly makes you rethink the things that you take for granted, which is the safety of children.”

So far this year, the police said, 20 children — ages 9 and younger — were murdered, up from 16 in 2011.  Among the victims was a 4-year-old boy, Lloyd Morgan Jr., who was shot in the head on a Bronx playground during a basketball tournament.  There were also several anomalies in the 2012 homicide tally, including a serial killer who murdered three shopkeepers in Brooklyn....

But overall killings have dropped to such a low level that more New Yorkers now commit suicide than are the victims of homicides. About 475 New Yorkers kill themselves each year, according to the city’s health department.

Mr. Bloomberg praised Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, saying the 19 percent drop in homicides compared with 2011 was achieved despite a shrinking police force and an increasing population.  Mr. Kelly said he believed that relatively new policing strategies, including adding more police officers dedicated to curbing domestic violence, and monitoring social media to thwart gang-related murders, were working. “We’re preventing crimes before someone is killed and before someone else has to go to prison,” the commissioner said.

Of the 414 murders, 14 deaths from previous years were counted as homicides for the first time...  Of the 400 murders in 2012, 223 were .gunshot victims, 84 victims were stabbed to death, 43 died of blunt trauma and 11 died of asphyxiation. 

The majority of the 400 homicides occurred on a Saturday, followed by early Sunday morning. Most occurred at 2 a.m.  People were more likely to be killed outside than in. Nearly 70 percent of the victims had prior criminal arrests, the police said.  Domestic-related homicides dropped to 68, from 94 in 2011.

The likelihood of being killed by a stranger was slight.  The vast majority of the homicides, Mr. Kelly said, grew out of “disputes” between a victim and killer who knew each other.

Though I am sure improved policing practices have played a significant role in the modern crime declines in New York City and elsewhere, I am not confident that this is the whole (or even most) of the story. Police practices in NYC surely did not get even 20% better in 2012 compared to 2011, and reductions in the police force must have diminished a bit the proactive policing potential of the NYC blue line. Consequently, some other (complex?) factors are likely part of the explanatory mix, though I suppose the record-low number may be just a statistical blip in the "usual" homicide numbers.

UPDATE:  Only hours after posting about the record-low number of of homicides in NYC in 2012, I came across this new Chicago Tribune article concerning the inverse homicide trend in Chicago.  The lengthy piece is headlined "In Chicago, killings and questions on the rise: As year's homicides hit 500, causes and solutions still being debated," and it starts this way:

73845493The rising homicide toll — 500 as of Friday, a 17 percent increase in slayings over last year — has been a looming shadow over Chicago, plaguing residents and the city's leadership for much of the year.

Although Chicago had almost twice as many homicides 20 years ago as it did this year, the increase in violent deaths represents a backslide for a city that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he wants to move forward. And with Chicago's homicide rate exceeding those in some other major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and New York, Emanuel, ever mindful of the city and his administration's image, has seen the city's violence attract unwanted national attention.

Since taking the helm last year, Emanuel and his hand-picked police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, have made safer streets a top priority, with McCarthy declaring "the murder rate in this city is way too high."

But a particularly bloody winter in early 2012 has kept both men on the defensive, and residents on edge. As homicides climbed, Emanuel and McCarthy repeatedly have had to defend themselves, making it a point to publicly note short periods when the city goes without a murder or to highlight successful violence-reduction efforts in certain neighborhoods. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents decried the gun and gang violence that claimed the vast majority of this year's homicide victims.

Experts warn not to put too fine a point on year-over-year increases in homicides, but Chicago's tally this year is the highest since 2008. Although everyone agrees the increase in violence is deplorable, what's more difficult to discern is exactly why Chicago's homicides have surged. But experts, police and community leaders have offered myriad possible factors [ranging from gang factions to policing patterns to the weather in early 2012].

December 29, 2012 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Empirical evidence suggests a sure fire way to dramatically lower gun homicides: repeal drug laws"

Homicides-1900-20062The title of this post is drawn from the title of this lengthy must-read post by Dan Kahan over at The Cultural Cognition Project blog. The post not only satiates my desire to have some distinct (and seemingly more productive) discussions about gun violence in the wake of the Newtown massacre than being provided by traditional media outlets, but it also makes a bunch of points that ought to be of interest to all persons on all sides of the tired-old gun-control debates. Dan's terrific post should be read in full, and I hope this taste (with some of his many links) will encourage everyone to click through to it:

I now want to point out that in fact, while the empirical evidence on the relationship between gun control and homicide is (at this time at least) utterly inconclusive, there certainly are policies out there that we have very solid evidence to believe would reduce gun-related homicides very substantially.

The one at the top of the list, in my view, is to legalize recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

The theory behind this policy prescription is that illegal markets breed competition-driven violence among suppliers by offering the prospect of monopoly profits and by denying them lawful means for enforcing commercial obligations.

The evidence is ample.  In addition to empirical studies of drug-law enforcement and crime rates, it includes the marked increase in homicide rates that attended alcohol prohibition and the subsequent, dramatic deline of it after repeal of the 18th Amendment.

Actually, it's pretty interesting to look at homicide rates over a broader historical time frame than typically is brought into view by those who opportunistically crop the picture in one way or another to support their position for or against gun control.  What you see is that there is a pretty steady historical trend toward decline in the US punctuated by expected noisy interludes but also by what appear to be some genuine, and genuinely dramatic, jumps & declines.

One of the jumps appears to have occurred with the onset of prohibition and one of the declines with repeal of prohibition. Social scientists doing their best to understand the evidence generally have concluded that that those are real shifts, and that they really were caused by prohibition and repeal.

Criminologists looking at the impact of drug prohibition can use the models developed in connection with alcohol prohibition and other modeling strategies to try to assess the impact of drug prohibition on crime.  Obviously the evidence needs to be interpreted, supports reasonable competing interpretations, and can never do more than justify provisional conclusions, ones that are necessarily subject to revision in light of new evidence, new analyses, and so forth.

But I'd say the weight of the evidence pretty convincingly shows that drug-related homicides generated as a consequence of drug prohibition are tremendously high and account for much of the difference in the homicide rates in the U.S. and those in comparable liberal market societies....

There is a very interesting empirical study, though, by economist Jeffrey Miron, who concludes that the available evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that the difference in homicide rates in the US and in other liberal market societies is attributable to our drug prohibition policies.  Gun availability in the US, according to this hypothesis, doesn't directly account for the difference in homicide rates between the US and these countries; rather, gun availability mediates the impact between drug prohibition and homicide rates in the US, because the criminogenic properties of drug prohibition create both a demand to murder competitors and a demand for guns to use for that purpose....

Repealing drug laws would do more -- much, much, much more -- than banning assault rifles (a measure I would agree is quite appropriate); barring carrying of concealed handguns in public (I'd vote for that in my state, if after hearing from people who felt differently from me, I could give an account of my position that fairly meets their points and doesn't trade on tacit hostility toward or mere incomprehension of whatever contribution owning a gun makes to their experience of a meaningful free life); closing the "gun show" loophole; extending waiting periods etc.  Or at least there is evidence for believing that, and we are entitled to make policy on the best understanding we can form of how the world works so long as we are open to new evidence and aren't otherwise interfering with liberties that we ought, in a liberal society, to respect.

Prior related posts following Newton masacre:

December 20, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack