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September 9, 2021

Is California's overall crime rate really at its lowest level ever recorded?

Image-fullThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice which is titled "California’s Crime Rate Falls To A Record Low In 2020; Counties With High Incarceration Rates Have More Crime And Worse Trends."  Here are excerpts from the report (cites preserved, click through for data and sources):

In the weeks leading up to the recall election of California Governor Gavin Newsom, crime has become a hot-button issue (David Binder Research, 2021; Gutierrez, 2021).  Unfortunately, rather than rationally analyzing crime, the press and some candidates and interest groups publicize anecdote-based claims featured in headlines such as, “California is seeing a crime surge,” or “San Francisco’s shoplifting surge” (Fuller, 2021; Walters, 2020).  While some press outlets have helped to correct such deceptive stories, fact checking typically comes after the damage is done (e.g., Neilson, 2021). The real trends in California crime contain reasons for both calm and concern (DOJ, 2021).

• California’s overall crime rate fell 6 percent in 2020, reaching its lowest level ever recorded.

Of the eight Part I felonies in the FBI’s index of crime, four increased from 2019 to 2020 and four declined.  Overall, the Part I crime index has fallen steadily over the last 20 years (including a 6 percent decline in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic), with all eight index offenses showing declines during that period.  The state’s index crime rate in 2020 was the lowest ever recorded since the index was created in 1969.

• Homicide rates rose 31 percent in 2020 but remain below levels seen from 1968 through 2008.

California, then, is not experiencing an overall “crime surge.”  The state did, however, suffer a 31 percent increase in both homicide deaths and reported homicides in 2020 compared to 2019. However, rates remain well below levels for the entire 40-year period from 1968 through 2008, during the state’s “tough-on-crime” era. Homicide, though a rare crime, profoundly affects communities’ sense of safety.

• Low-incarceration counties have half as many homicides per capita as high-incarceration counties.

An examination of jail (BSCC, 2021), prison (CDCR, 2021), and crime data shows that counties with the lowest rates of incarceration also have lower rates of homicide and shoplifting—two offenses that have garnered the most media attention.  This counters an assumption by recall proponents, too often echoed uncritically in the press, that counties with progressive district attorneys have pursued policies they label “lenient” and “no-consequence” that are responsible for more crime (see Arango, 2021; Levenson, 2021; Stringini, 2021; Wallace-Wells, 2021).

September 9, 2021 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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