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Just Facts: Crime in Context — The Lessons of History

We’re at no risk of losing decades of progress. Crime rates nationwide currently stand at or near lows not seen since the 1960s. There have been some local increases, but it would be a mistake to overstate this change or overreact to it.

  • James Cullen
October 7, 2016

Public safety is the govern­ment’s first and perhaps most import­ant duty. So it should come as no surprise that crim­inal justice policy came up both in the first pres­id­en­tial debate, and this week’s vice pres­id­en­tial forum. We can expect it to arise again in Sunday’s pres­id­en­tial town hall.

These ongo­ing debates about crime on the national stage are fairly new. For the last decade and a half, it had ceased to be a major topic of conver­sa­tion thanks to fall­ing crime rates nation­wide.

So why is crime back in the news and on the debate stage this year? One explan­a­tion is increas­ing concern about recent FBI data, show­ing the murder rate and viol­ent crime rate rising in 2015.

Any rise is troub­ling. But it would be a mistake to over­state this change — or worse, to over­re­act to it. Crime rates nation­wide currently stand at or near lows not seen since the 1960s, as the graph below shows. The over­all crime rate contin­ues to fall, drop­ping in 2015 for the 14th year in a row.

Viol­ent crime also remains low compared to where it was 5, 10, or 25 years ago. There was a 3 percent increase in the viol­ent crime rate in 2015, however. 

Murder rates tell a similar story. The murder rate increased 10 percent last year, and currently stands near 1960s levels. But it remains well below the peaks seen in the 1990s and even below the early 2000’s. 

Accord­ing to FBI data, a full 20 percent of this increase was due to upticks in four cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Milwau­kee, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — which make up just over 1 percent of the popu­la­tion. (The Bren­nan Center found similar results in our 2015 study of crime rates in the 30 largest cities. We concluded that half of the murder increase was attrib­ut­able to three cities — Baltimore, Chicago, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.)

Our prelim­in­ary analysis of 2016 data showed a similar phenomenon. While murder rates in Baltimore and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are expec­ted to decrease signi­fic­antly, we project that a troub­ling jump in Chicago will account for nearly half of this year’s 13.1 percent increase. The causes there are complex, but gangs, guns, and fall­ing police numbers may explain some of the change.

What about the site of the next pres­id­en­tial debate — St. Louis, Missouri? Unfor­tu­nately, as the chart below shows, St. Louis’s exper­i­ence tracks Chica­go’s. Like the Windy City, St. Louis has seen crime remain relat­ively flat or increase slightly over the last 25 years. Accord­ing to the FBI, the murder rate in St. Louis was 59.3 per 100,000 last year, or around 14 times higher than New York City, whose murder rate is continu­ing to fall or hold mostly steady. But unlike Chicago, the Bren­nan Center projects that murders in St. Louis will fall in 2016.

Despite the relat­ive safety of our coun­try today, we need to confront the chal­lenges faced by cities like Chicago and St. Louis. As the Bren­nan Center showed in a report last year, that can start with expand­ing economic oppor­tun­ity. Lower unem­ploy­ment and higher incomes both correl­ate with fall­ing crime.

Unsur­pris­ingly, crim­inal justice policy also matters. Increased police numbers and smart, evid­ence-based poli­cing tactics, such as CompStat, helped to turn the tide against crime in the 1990s and 2000s. Increas­ing police legit­im­acy and improv­ing officers’ rela­tion­ship with the communit­ies they serve is also import­ant for keep­ing murder rates down.

“Stop and frisk,” another police tactic, may sound like an easy answer, and it’s been floated recently as a solu­tion to local crime increases. But the data, as shown in a Bren­nan Center analysis, tell another story. Even after ending the contro­ver­sial program, New York has contin­ued to reduce its viol­ent crime rate.

Finally, we know that push­ing incar­cer­a­tion rates higher is unlikely to be effect­ive. A previ­ous Bren­nan Center analysis showed the effect of incar­cer­a­tion on crime has basic­ally been null for the last 15 years. Police officers agree, too.

Amer­ican poli­cy­makers have made great strides toward keep­ing the public safe. That progress cannot stop. Hope­fully, the pres­id­en­tial candid­ates can learn from history, and from data of the last 50 years, and help bring about an even safer future.