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

Monday, October 29, 2012

FBI reports crime was down yet again in 2011 (though BJS said it was up)

As reported in this official press release, based on "figures released today by the FBI, the estimated number of violent crimes in 2011 declined for the fifth consecutive year.  Property crimes also decreased, marking the ninth straight year that the collective estimates for these offenses declined." Here is more:

The 2011 statistics show that the estimated volumes of violent and property crimes declined 3.8 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively, when compared with the 2010 estimates. The violent crime rate for the year was 386.3 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants (a 4.5 percent decrease from the 2010 rate), and the property crime rate was 2,908.7 offenses per 100,000 persons (a 1.3 percent decrease from the 2010 figure).

These and additional data are presented in the 2011 edition of the FBI’s annual report Crime in the United States [available here]. This publication is a statistical compilation of offense and arrest data reported by law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.

The UCR Program collects information on crimes reported by law enforcement agencies regarding the violent crimes of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, as well as the property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.  (Although the FBI classifies arson as a property crime, it does not estimate arson data because of variations in the level of participation by the reporting agencies.  Consequently, arson is not included in the property crime estimate.) The program also collects arrest data for the offenses listed above plus 20 additional offenses that include all other crimes except traffic violations.

These data are a bit of a head-scratcher, in part because, as noted in this prior post, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics' annual national crime victimization survey showed an increase in both violent crime and property crime for 2011.  So now I do not know whether to worry about crime going up or to worry about whether we can be sure if crime is going up or going down.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline: 

October 29, 2012 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is the great US crime decline now finally over?: BJS reports crime up in 2011

As reported in this AP article, the "number of violent crimes rose by 18% in the U.S. last year while property crimes went up by 11%, the government reported Wednesday."  Here is more on this notable crime data news:

It was the first year-to-year increase for violent crime since 1993, marking the end of a long string of declines.  Violent crime fell by 65% since 1993, from 16.8 million to 5.8 million last year.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics' annual national crime victimization survey, the size of the percentage increases in both violent crime and property crime for last year was driven in large part by the historically low levels seen in 2010.

The increase in violent crime was the result of an upward swing in assaults, which rose 22%, from four million in 2010 to five million last year.  But the incidence of rape, sexual assault and robbery remained largely unchanged, as did serious violent crime involving weapons or injury.

"While it's cause for concern, I would caution against forecasting future crime trends based on a one-year fluctuation," said Chris Melde, an assistant professor at Michigan State University's school of criminal justice.  "You can have percentage changes that seem quite large, but unless you put them in a longer-term perspective you can sometimes misinterpret the overall seriousness of the problem," Mr. Melde added.

The increases in violent crime experienced by whites, Hispanics, younger people and men accounted for the majority of the increase in violent crime.

In the latest survey, property crime was up for the first time in a decade, from 15.4 million in 2010 to 17 million last year.  Household burglaries rose 14%, from 3.2 million to 3.6 million.  The number of thefts jumped by 10%, from 11.6 million to 12.8 million.

The victimization figures are based on surveys by the Census Bureau of a large sample of people in order to gather data from those who are victims of crime.  They are considered the government's most comprehensive crime statistics because they count both crimes that never are reported to the police as well as those reported.

Last May, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's preliminary crime report for 2011, which counts only crimes reported to police, concluded that crime dropped again last year, down 4% for violent crime and 3.7% for property crime.  The declines slowed in the second half of last year, a sign to academic experts that the many years of lowering crime levels might be nearing an end.  Historically, less than half of all crimes, including violent crimes, are reported to police.

The full BJS report, excitingly titled "Criminal Victimization, 2011, is available at this link.  Because there are so many different ways to interpret ad spin this BJS data, I am not even going to try.  But I welcome commenters to go at it.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline: 

October 17, 2012 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Report from Council of State Governments indicates reduced recidivism in many states

I always enjoy reporting good crime and punishment news; I am thus pleased to highlight this press release from The Council of State Governments Justice Center’s National Reentry Resource Center  discussing findings that "a number of states [are] reporting significant reductions in recidivism."  The press release provides a summary of this policy brief, including these highlights:

The states profiled in the report show significant declines in their three-­year recidivism rates based on data tracking individuals released from prison in 2005 and 2007. Texas and Ohio reported reductions of 11 percent, while the Kansas rate fell by 15 percent and Michigan’s rate dropped by 18 percent.  Incorporating data through 2010 (and in some cases, through 2011), the report provides the most recent multi-state information available on recidivism....

US Senator Rob Portman (R, OH), a co-author of the Second Chance Act, applauded the states, including Ohio, for their accomplishments.  “Second Chance Act programs, in collaboration with faith-based and community organizations and local reentry coalitions, have a proven record of helping inmates turn their lives around, and I applaud their continued good efforts to reduce recidivism.  Encouraging people released from prison to become productive members of society not only strengthens communities, but also reduces the burden on taxpayers who shoulder the costs associated with incarceration.”

The brief, “States Report ReducAons in Recidivism,” highlights strategies that leaders in several states credit with helping drive down recidivism:

• In Ohio, state policymakers standardized the use of a validated risk assessment instrument to focus limited treatment and supervision resources on those individuals assessed at the highest risk for reoffending.

• In Kansas, state leaders awarded performance-based grants to community corrections agencies, partnered with local communities where recidivism rates were highest to improve post-release supervision, and enhanced housing and workforce development services to beaer meet the needs of people coming out of prison.

• Michigan officials invested heavily in the state’s Prisoner Reentry Program, prioritizing funding for housing, employment, and other transition support services in order to provide the most effective community-based programming for released individuals.

September 25, 2012 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, June 11, 2012

Effective explanation of why we never can really know impact of capital punishment

Im.Hf9A3j5GQBetsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, have this effective new commentary now up at Bloomberg discussing the challenge of ever reaching a firm conclusion as to the true impact of the death penalty in the modern United States.  The piece is titled "The Death-Penalty Debate Represents a Market Failure," and here are excerpts:

The debate over the death penalty offers a vivid illustration of a tragic flaw in the market of ideas: Strong beliefs attract a lot more attention, and can have a lot more influence, than the truth.

In recent years, five U.S. states have eliminated capital punishment, and several others are currently reconsidering their policies. Advocates of the death penalty insist the moves will lead to more murders.  They point to a number of studies conducted over the past couple of decades that purport to find clear evidence supporting their view.  Experts happily serve up unequivocal congressional testimony, and feed their analyses to lobby groups.

The reality, unsatisfying and inconvenient as it may be, is that we simply don’t know how capital punishment affects the homicide rate.  That’s the conclusion of the National Academy of Sciences, which typically plays the role of impartial arbiter in these social-science debates.  Their expert panel recently concluded that existing research “is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates,” and that such studies “should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.”...

As big a deal as capital punishment may seem, it’s actually quite rare.  Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, there have been about 670,000 homicides and only 1,296 executions, a rate of about one execution per 500 murders.  This makes the task of discerning its specific impact very difficult.

To complicate things further, the homicide rate fluctuates enormously for reasons unrelated to capital punishment.  So the correlation between capital punishment and homicide rates can be positive or negative, depending on the specific sample of states or countries analyzed, the sample period chosen, and which other determinants are accounted for.

Even if the correlation between capital punishment and murder rates could be reliably estimated, that wouldn’t be enough to prove causation.  For instance, more vigorous capital punishment probably occurs at the same time as other reforms to sentencing, prisons and policing.  Unless these variables are measured accurately -- and our existing criminal-justice statistics do not provide adequate measures -- it is impossible to disentangle which reforms are driving the homicide rate.

It’s not even clear how to determine whether a state has an active death penalty.  Is Connecticut’s recent decision to eliminate its death penalty consequential, given that the state executed only one person in the past 50 years?  California has issued 951 death sentences since 1976, but executed only 13 prisoners, suggesting that the courts have slowed down the system enough to effectively transform a nominal death sentence into life without parole.

Finally, we have no evidence at all on how would-be murderers perceive the risk of execution if they are caught, which is what really matters for deterrence.

Taken together, the various problems of measuring the relationship between crime and punishment yield what the National Academy panel calls “model uncertainty.”  In English, that means there are many seemingly plausible ways of looking at the evidence that yield dramatically different answers.  The true effect could be big or small, positive or negative.  We just can’t estimate it with any certainty....

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Even if one accepts the possibility that the threat of death deters some would-be murderers, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do so.  Capital punishment diverts hundreds of millions of dollars from other criminal-justice interventions that may have done more to reduce homicide rates.  This important point -- there’s an opportunity cost to spending on capital punishment -- often gets overlooked.

Amid all the uncertainty, the data do allow one conclusion that the National Academy should have emphasized more strongly: The death penalty isn’t the dominant factor driving the fluctuations in the U.S. homicide rate.  If it were, the homicide rate in the U.S. wouldn’t have moved in lockstep with that of Canada, even as the two countries experimented with different death-penalty regimes (see chart).  Likewise, homicide rates tend to rise and fall roughly in unison across states, even as some -- such as Texas -- ramp up executions, and others have chosen not to adopt the practice (see chart).

Overall, the panel’s conclusions are a welcome corrective to a debate in which politically expedient, yet imperfect, findings have attracted greater attention than those rare moments of humility when we social scientists admit what we don’t know.  Now that a widely respected authority has established the uncertainty about the deterrent effects of the death penalty, it’s time for advocates on both sides to recognize that their beliefs are the product of faith, not data.

Recent and older related posts:

June 11, 2012 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Still more (and still puzzling) crime rate declines reported by FBI

Chart500This press release from the FBI, which carries the exciting title "FBI Releases Preliminary Annual Crime Statistics for 2011," includes some truly exciting news about the latest crime rate data:

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report released today, the nation experienced a 4.0 percent decrease in the number of violent crimes and a 0.8 percent decline in the number of property crimes in 2011 when compared with data from 2010. The report is based on information the FBI gathered from 14,009 law enforcement agencies that submitted six to 12 comparable months of data for both 2010 and 2011.

Some of the crime-rate specifics are detailed in the graphic reprinted here and via these data snippets:

In this notable and astute analysis of these new data, Professor James Alan Fox compares the data for all of 2011 with the FBI data from just the first half of 2011 to conclude that, in fact, "several crime categories showed an increase in the second half of the year, including a 1.9% uptick in murder."  Based on this analysis, Fox has this view and advice:

[W]e shouldn't overstate the significance of the trends for the second half of the year; they are as volatile as those for the first half.  The late-year increases may say more about low crime levels near the end of 2010 than anything about 2011.  The fuller picture remains to be seen.

Whatever the final data show, it would seem that the long-term downturn in crime has slowed, and may even have bottomed out.  Crime can’t go down forever, of course.  At this juncture, we need to focus on making sure that any increase that does occur is relatively modest.

With rates relatively low, this is not the time to diminish crime fighting efforts.  If we naively presume that the crime problem has been solved (as opposed to just controlled for the time being), the crime rate could easily rebound.  If we fail to invest sufficiently in crime prevention and crime control — both personnel and programs — we may someday look back at 2011 and consider them the “good old days.”

As regular readers know, I continue to be amazed and puzzled with modern American crime rate trends, especially during a period in which so many Americans (on both the right and the left) seem convinced that the country's political and legal systems are highly dysfunctional.  In this important arena, something keep working; whatever that something is, I hope it does not run out of all its still positive momentum anytime soon.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline: 

June 11, 2012 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Is the crime rate just shifting, not really declining?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this provacative new piece by Christopher Glazek, sent my way by a kind reader, appearing in the magazine n+1.  The piece is titled, "Raise the Crime Rate," and here is an excerpt:

According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years.  In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City.  In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.

When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent.  Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the country was more dangerous in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, than in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble.  What’s strange is that crime has continued to fall during the recession.  On May 23, in what has become an annual ritual, the New York Times celebrated the latest such finding: in 2010, as America’s army of unemployed grew to 14 million, violent crime fell for the fourth year in a row, sinking to a level not seen since the early ’70s.  This seemed odd.  Crime and unemployment were supposed to rise in tandem — progressives have been harping on this point for centuries. Where had all the criminals gone?

Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con.  Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States — it’s been shifted.  Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells.  The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie — but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole.  What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union.  We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.

The rest of this commentary does an effective job discussing various problems of mass incarceration and the so-called "prison-industrial complex," but the claim that crime has merely shifted from outside to inside the prison walls is misguided both statistically and normatively.  We have literally thousands fewer murders outside the prison walls each year now compared to two decades ago, and there are usually only a handful of murders in prison each year.  The rape story is much more complicated and the notion of a mere crime shift here is a bit more plausible.  But, critically, unless sent to prison based on a wrongful conviction, those enduring crime within prison walls are not properly described as a "luckless minority."  Bad luck can often play some role in whether, when and how one gets sent to prison for a crime, but the average citizen can entirely avoid this luck by avoiding any serious criminal wrongdoing.

These concerns notwithstanding, this commentary still makes for an interesting read and it concludes with these sentiment which I consider very sound in many respects:  

If ever there were a time to launch a coordinated assault on the prison-industrial complex, the time is now.  Budgets are strained, voters are angry, and crime is low.  The Tea Party is in the midst of convincing everyone that government is the enemy — and so it is, in the field of criminal justice.

Popular resentment against an authoritarian state shouldn’t be denied or pooh-poohed — it should be seized and marshaled toward progressive ends.  The prison crisis was created by centrists.  Limited reforms and immoral moderation will not end the crisis.  Prisoners and ex-cons, the most abused population in United States, will have to rely on political extremists, on both the left and the right, to turn the page on what will one day be recalled as one of American history’s darkest chapters.

February 7, 2012 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, January 09, 2012

"A steep drop in crime, but do you feel safer?"

The title of this post comes from the headline of this article run this past weekend in the Los Angeles Times, though the question might well be asked in just about every major city in the nation.  Here is how the interesting piece gets started:

A newsroom has its own way of tracking a city's trend toward diminishing crime. Twenty years ago, a reporter tallying crime stats for our newspaper's weekly blotter might sift through dozens of killings on a single weekend. There were more than 1,000 homicides a year. Last year, there were fewer than 300 homicides — and many weekends with no killings.

Ten years ago, reporters working the streets kept mental lists of neighborhoods considered too dangerous to visit alone. Now, no neighborhood is off-limits. That sense of ambient criminal menace is gone.

Los Angeles —- like other big cities around the country — is in the midst of a crime drop so steep and profound, it has experts scratching their heads. Crime fell in 2011 for the ninth year in a row, to levels not seen in Los Angeles since half a century ago. The city had fewer crimes last year — and a million and a half more people — than it did when "Leave It To Beaver" made its debut in 1957.

The reasons are complicated and ripe for debate: better policing and more community involvement; fewer drugs and fuller prisons; an explosion in new technology; and the fading profile of violent gangs. The phenomenon ought to be scrutinized. We need to know what mix of forces has conspired to drive crime down, so we can — in an era of shrinking resources — plan and spend wisely to keep this going.

We also have to ask ourselves: What will this transformation mean? What will we do with all this safety in a city known not so long ago as the capital of drive-by shootings?

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline in California and nationally:  

January 9, 2012 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

"Falling Crime Rates Challenge Long-Held Beliefs"

The title of this post is the headline of this 30-minute segment that played yesterday on NPR's Talk of the Nation. The guests were Charles Lane from the Washington Post and William Bratton, former chief of police in NYC and LA. Here is NPR's set up:

Crime rates dropped sharply in the past twenty years, according to FBI data, a trend that continues despite the recession and a recent decrease in prison populations.  Criminologists see a clear trend, but can't fully explain what's driving the decline in violent and property crime rates.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline: 

January 4, 2012 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Effective Washington Post commentary talks up great (and still puzzling) crime decline

Charles Lane has this new commentary in the Washington Post headlined "Taking a bite out of crime." Here are excerpts:

The most important social trend of the past 20 years is as positive as it is underappreciated: the United States’ plunging crime rate.

Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in the United States fell 51 percent, from 9.8 per 100,000 residents to 4.8 per 100,000.  Property crimes such as burglary also fell sharply during that period; auto theft, once the bane of urban life, dropped an astonishing 64 percent.  And FBI data released Dec. 19 show that the trends continued in the first half of 2011.  With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957.

To be sure, the United States is still more violent than Europe or Canada, and that’s nothing to brag about.  But this country is far, far safer than it was as recently as the late 1980s...

We are reaping a domestic peace dividend, and it can be measured in the precious coin of human life.  Berkeley criminologist Franklin E. Zimring has found that the death rate for young men in New York today is half what it would have been if homicides had continued unabated.

The psychological payoff, too, is enormous.  Only 38 percent of Americans say they fear walking alone at night within a mile of their homes, according to Gallup, down from 48 percent three decades ago.  For my teenage son and his classmates, dread of crime is far less prevalent than it was in my generation....

Lower crime rates also mean one less source of political polarization.  In August 1994, 52 percent of Americans told Gallup that crime was the most important issue facing the country; in November 2011, only 1 percent gave that answer.  Think political debate is venomous now?  Imagine if law and order were still a “wedge issue.”

Did I mention the economic benefits?  Safe downtowns draw more tourists for longer stays. Fewer car thefts mean lower auto insurance rates.  Young people who don’t get murdered grow up to produce goods and services.

Plunging crime rates also debunk conventional wisdom, left and right.  Crime’s continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the liberal myth that hard times force people into illegal activity — that, like the Jets in “West Side Story,” crooks are depraved on account of being deprived.  Yet recent history also refutes conservatives who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage “superpredators” would unleash a new crime wave.

Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates, confirming the liberal worldview.  Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities, consistent with conservative theory.  Contrary to liberal belief, incarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime.  Contrary to conservative doctrine, crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place.

On the whole, though, what’s most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes.  Take the increase in state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008.  This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime — and its most troubling byproduct.  But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink....

“What went wrong?” is the question that launched a thousand blue-ribbon commissions. But we also need to investigate when things go right — especially when, as in the case of crime, success defied so many expert predictions.

I certainly agree that the modern crime decline over the last 20 years is a cause for great celebration and intense examiniation, and also that the benefits resulting from this crime decline are broad and varied. (I would add one important caveat, though, especially after Lane stresses that "Young people who don’t get murdered grow up to produce goods and services": more people not murdered also means more people growing old, seeking entitlement benefits, and driving up health care costs as they age.)

I fully agree with Lane's suggestion about creating a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the great crime decline. Indeed, I would think it would make for very good politics, as well as good policy, for President Obama or Attorney General Holder to create just such a commission to explore these issues throughout 2012.  Especially in the wake of the failure of Congress to create the National Criminal Justice Commission pushed by retiring Senator Jim Webb (basics here), the President and AG Holder could and would make lots of positive headlines by inviting folks like Webb and, say, former AG John Asahcroft and some state AGs to be part of an executive working group to make assessments about what may be the best explanations for why governments are continuing to do so well with crime control.

Some related posts on the great modern crime decline:

December 27, 2011 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack