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January 28, 2016

Diving deep into latest data showing significant uptick in homicides in 2015

The folks at Wonkblog have this effective new posting, headlined "More people were murdered last year than in 2014, and no one’s sure why," which provides lots of interesting data on the significant increase in homicides in major cities in 2015.  It also highlights why simple explanations for this recent homicide increase (or prior decreases) are hard to come by.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Wonkblog analysis of preliminary crime data found that about 770 more people were killed in major cities last year than the year before, the worst annual change since 1990.

The killings increased as some law enforcement officials and conservative commentators were warning that violent crime was on the rise amid a climate of hostility toward police. They said protests and intense scrutiny of officers who used lethal force had caused officers to become disengaged from their jobs, making streets more dangerous. Some have called it the "Ferguson effect," after the St. Louis suburb in which Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014.

A closer look at the figures, however, suggests no single explanation for the increases and reveals no clear pattern among those cities that experienced the most horrific violence. Several cities that recorded the largest increases in homicides -- Nashville and Washington, D.C., for instance -- had no widely publicized, racially charged killings by police. Many other big cities recorded modest increases or even declines in the number of homicides, with no deviation from the pattern of recent years....

Public safety has been improving for two decades, and lethal violence in large cities is still rare by historical standards. Twice as many people were killed in those 50 cities in 1991 as in 2015. "You certainly wouldn't want to say the sky is falling," said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Nonetheless, last year's interruption in the decline in homicides has experts concerned. They say it's too early to know what caused the change, or whether it will endure. It's not clear if there is a Ferguson effect, or if the homicides are a result of the heroin epidemic, reduced police department budgets, a decline in the number of convicts behind bars or other factors entirely. "There's no national pattern," said Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley....

Stephens, of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, ticked off a list of other theories for the increase in violence. Perhaps relaxed gun laws in some states are making firearms more widely available, and more arguments are being settled with lethal weapons as a result. Stephens also noted that authorities are locking up fewer people in prison, and perhaps more dangerous criminals were on the street last year.

Federal data, however, suggest that the reduction in the incarcerated population over the past several years is mainly a consequence of decreasing admissions, rather than a change in the number of prisoners released annually, which has also declined. In 2014, just 582,000 prisoners were let go from state and federal prisons, compared with 683,000 in 2008....

Additionally, both those explanations are complicated by the absence of any regional pattern in the data. There were more killings in Nashville, but the total in Memphis declined by 1 percent. The number of homicides increased 25 percent in Houston, but decreased 9 percent in San Antonio. There were seven fewer homicides last year than in 2014 in Fresno, Calif., a decline of 15 percent. Meanwhile, up Highway 99 in Sacramento, there were 43 killings last year, an increase of 54 percent. "Everything is basically anecdotal," Stephens said. "There's not a clear national picture that I've been able to discern of what might be contributing to the changes that we’ve seen in so many cities."

Bill Otis has some sharp commentary about these data and how Wonkblog reports it in this post at Crime & Consequences titled "The National Murder Crisis, Worse Than We Thought."  In that post, Bill quickly mentions "that the increase in murder in 2015 was more than 25 times the total number of killers executed that year," but he disappointingly does not follow-up by noting that the one major city with the biggest decline in homicides in 2015 was also the city with the most headline-grabbing 2015 capital punishment trial: Boston.  (I am generally disinclined to suggest there is a close relationship between the administration of the death penalty and homicide rates, but I still find notable that the dozen cities with the largest homicide increases in 2015 are all in states without the death penalty or with a capital punishment system not functioning properly.) 

January 28, 2016 at 06:41 PM | Permalink


Well, the homicide rates may be up in 2015 but aren't the overall rates still lower than they've been since their peak years?

Posted by: Fred | Jan 28, 2016 7:21:24 PM

Any "blog" that consistently uses the adjective "pro-criminal" is hardly worth the time to read, much less argue with. I have NEVER seen a sight that only reports and exposes its "confirmation bias" as this sight.

Maybe the increase in murders is the result of college graduates being unable to repay their loans and live at the same time (sarcasm for those too dense).

Posted by: albeed | Jan 28, 2016 9:11:22 PM

"or with a capital punishment system not functioning properly"

where IS it functioning properly?

Posted by: Joe | Jan 28, 2016 11:29:50 PM

"Perhaps relaxed gun laws in some states are making firearms more widely available, and more arguments are being settled with lethal weapons as a result."

That should be pretty easy to check--how many suspects in murders had the legal right to carry?

What seems more likely: fewer gun crime prosecutions, lax immigration enforcement (particularly with respect to deportable criminals) and letting a whole bunch of criminals out of prison (Cali/feds).

This isn't hard.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 29, 2016 9:16:40 AM

Can someone explain why Italy has 500 homicides per year and NO death penalty at all????

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2016 12:49:54 PM

The food?

Posted by: Joe | Jan 29, 2016 1:03:18 PM

chissà??? In 1991 homicides were 2.000

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2016 3:25:40 PM

One would think that 770 extra dead bodies would causes some alarm for those who think we're too mean on criminals and that we should be releasing a bunch more. But noooo.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 29, 2016 7:28:12 PM

I did this post, federalist, to highlight that I am alarmed by the uptick in homicides in 2015 that is calculated to have produced 770 extra dead bodies. But I wonder if you think I am justified in being even more alarmed by the estimated traffic fatality uptick in 2015 that, according to this NHTSA publication, may have produced perhaps as many as 2,500 extra dead bodies: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812217.pdf.

I focus often on traffic fatalities while others focus so much more on homicides, not only because MANY more lives seem to be at stake, but also because I believe it may be easier for truly innocent persons to avoid situations that create higher homicide risks, whereas it may be harder for truly innocent persons to avoid situations that can create higher traffic fatality risks. In addition, though I think we ought to spend considerable time and energy and money to seek to lower homicides in the US, the ready availability of guns and the violence that the drug war helps to fuel (and our relatively low modern homicide rates) often leads me to worry that we are more likely to hit a point of diminishing returns quickly in this space. In contrast, I think we still can do a lot on the roadways to avoid a much larger number of extra dead bodies.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 30, 2016 1:37:02 PM

I'm against the death penalty but do agree to a large degree with Prof. "Doug B." that there is so much out there in the criminal justice system to be worried about and avoidable deaths as a whole (e.g., would breathalyzers being required in cars help deter at least some major injuries? we can talk about how they can be worked around, but that is true for loads of useful things ... question is as a whole) that is crowded out by concerns about the death penalty and murders. This doesn't make the last two things unimportant.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 30, 2016 3:30:30 PM

Come on Doug--I don't like traffic fatalities any more than you do. The difference, of course, is that I am not a traffic safety expert, and I am willing to listen to ideas (and I am no fan of drunk drivers), The soft-on-crime crowd isn't willing to listen. And while I don't lump you in, necessarily, with that group, your playbook of relentless questioning, which is generally used as a defense of daffy ideas gets ancient.

At the end of the day, and I will never ever let this drop--you defend a SCOTUS opinion that stated that there is evidence to support the ridiculous proposition that releasing prisoners from an overcrowded environment (where they have, according to the opinion been hardened by said overcrowding) could improve public safety. Statements like that ought to embarrass the legal community.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 30, 2016 10:03:24 PM

federalist, I defend that SCOTUS opinion (Plata) because it is right on the law AND because you continue to misunderstand and mischaracterize a single sentence that was part of Justice Kennedy's lengthy analysis of the evidence presented below. And meanwhile you ignore the remarkable sentences by Justice Scalia, at the very start of his dissent in Plata, that the text of the law passed by Congress ought to be essentially ignored ("bent") based on his view of "common sense." The start of this Plata dissent has always struck me as far more embarrassing to anyone who holds up Justice Scalia (or Justice Thomas, who joined it) as some kind of legal paragon of textualist virtue.

Meanwhile, federalist, I wonder if and why you would consider yourself more of a criminal justice/homicide expert than a traffic safety expert in this context or others. I assume you are not a criminal nor that you know personally many folks who are killers or are victims of killers; but I suspect you do drive and have had at least one traffic accident and likely know people who have killed others on the road or have been killed on the road. I say all this not to assert you are a traffic expert, but rather to question your curious statement that you care more about a much smaller number of lives murdered than killed on roadways because of your limited knowledge of traffic safety.

I surmise from your other statement that what really drives you is not any expertise, but a sharp dislike for the claims of people who view criminal justice issues differently from you (the "soft-on-crime crowd"). That is fine, but it is an important and telling insight that you are not motivated really by a concern for saving the most innocent lives, but rather by your interest in attacking those which whom you disagree.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 31, 2016 11:23:29 AM

Actually, Doug, I know at least two people from my neighborhood who went on to become murderers. I grew up in very rough areas. But no, I am not a criminal, but I am a lawyer, and I am well-informed about criminal justice issues (they tend, I think, to be simpler than traffic safety issues too, and there are so many tradeoffs with traffic safety). Obviously, drunk driving is an issue, and it continues to be. But the speed tradeoffs, how "hot spots" are identified etc. is outside of my area of expertise.

And no I don't mischaracterize the sentence--first off, that sentence is wrong on the law because the leap from "less overcrowding = less crime" to "it would help public safety to reduce overcrowding here by releasing a bunch of people hardened by overcrowding" is without basis, so to the extent the trial court relied on that leap (really, it was a throwaway) that should have led to a reversal. Second, it's just nuts, and anyone with an ounce of common sense would know it. The larger point, of course, is that five Justices on SCOTUS signed off on something that irrational. Scary too that you would also.

As for Scalia's dissent, I haven't read it in a while, but I am happy to debate that.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 31, 2016 11:41:39 AM

"That is fine, but it is an important and telling insight that you are not motivated really by a concern for saving the most innocent lives, but rather by your interest in attacking those which whom you disagree."

I was going to let that one stand as a testament to flabby thinking--but alas, I cannot. As much as I enjoy attacking (read poking holes in silly platitudes of) the "soft on crime crowd", I like more traffic safety not less (acknowledging that there are trade-offs inherent in building a traffic system). This is a criminal law blog--not a traffic safety blog. And if some guy gets an overly lenient sentence for DUI, you post about it and people whine in here about how mean the justice system was, I will likely debate them as well.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 31, 2016 4:32:15 PM

federalist: I am not going to go through, yet again, how you misunderstand and mischaracterize a single sentence in Plata. But I am amused by your mania concerning it.

I am also amused that you view criminal justice issues to be simpler than traffic safety issues, and I am especially intrigued that you apparently see that there are "so many tradeoffs" involved in trying to make our roads safer but seemingly do not see "so many tradeoffs" involved in trying to make other parts of our society safer.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 31, 2016 11:27:20 PM


Posted by: Joe | Feb 1, 2016 1:08:50 AM

"mischaracterize and misunderstand"--nope--identify a leap o' logic that Bob Beamon would be proud of

As for the traffic vs. crime--good grief Doug--for example, let's take LEDs for lighting in northern climes--guess what, no heat = traffic lights that get snowed up--so who makes the environmental vs. safety decision? How far north do we do LEDs---that's hard. Obviously, coming up with the precise sentence for each and every offender that exactly matched his/her danger/moral culpability would be similarly hard--so, guess what, we simplify the process with MMs etc.---why, because we recognize that (a) human judgment is fallible and (b) non-good faith errors get made (see, e.g., Columbus) because people want to feel good about being nice to criminals. There is risk to be allocated, and it is allocated to the criminal. Now I grant you that there are some sentences (or prosecutions) that are abjectly cruel (e.g., prosecuting 15 year old girls for sexting selfies), and also there are some sentences that are completely irrational (besides the fact that I don't like irrationality, the cumulative effect of irrational sentences undermine confidence in the justice system which undermines support for it). Ive said things along these lines many times, by the way. And, I have praised strong clemency regimes. But when it gets right down to it--you support mass releases with little or no review--you won't say it out loud, but you believe in them--come what may.

But hey---you keep comparing crack dealers to those who fought de jure segregation.

And you keep trying to argue that I don't care about motorist fatalities.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 1, 2016 7:27:00 AM

federalist, I have never said you do not care about motorist fatalities, rather I simply asked you if you think it improper that I am even more alarmed by many more "extra deal bodies" (2500) on the roadways in 2015 than the 770 extra dead bodies you think should be alarming advocated for sentencing reforms. I continue to hope to get a straight answer from you in response the this straight question.

Instead, tellingly, you are quick to say when I highlight the alarming 2015 driving fatality data that traffic safety involves a bunch of trade offs. I agree, and so does public safety (as you seem to agree). And we also agree that often these safety issues are about risk allocation AND wise use of limited government resources. For reasons I sought to explain and based on the data from 2015, I still think more government resources spent making our roads safer, and less spent incarcerating Weldon Angelos, would lower the risk of extra dead bodies. And I do not mean to assert that any of this is simple, but I do mean to try to make sure taxpayer investments in improving public safety are generally as sound as possible in light of the latest data.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 1, 2016 10:50:25 AM

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