Little Evidence Behind Claims of Rising Crime

November 19, 2015

An analysis of 2015 crime trends in the nation’s biggest cities shows that reports of rising crime across the country are overblown and not supported by the available data, according to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Using preliminary statistics from the nation’s 30 largest cities, a team of economics and legal researchers found that crime overall is expected to remain roughly the same in 2015 as in 2014. While the murder rate is expected to be slightly higher than in 2014, the historically low baseline for murder means that a small increase in the number of murders can result in a percentage increase that seems more troubling than it should.

 “The average person in a large urban area is safer walking on the street today than he or she would have been at almost any time in the past 30 years.” wrote authors Matthew Friedman, Nicole Fortier, and James Cullen. “Although headlines suggesting a coming crime wave make good copy, a look at the available data shows there is no evidence to support this claim.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Crime overall in the 30 largest cities in 2015 is expected to remain roughly the same as in 2014; in fact, our projections show a decrease of 1.5 percent, meaning the crime rate will remain half of what it was in 1990 and almost a quarter (22 percent) of what it was in 2000.
     
  • The 2015 murder rate is projected to be 11 percent higher than last year in the 30 largest cities, with 14 cities experiencing increases and 11 decreases. However in absolute terms, murder rates are so low that a small numerical increase leads to a large percentage change. Even with the 2015 increase, murder rates are roughly the same as they were in 2012. Since murder rates vary widely from year to year, one year’s increase is not evidence for a coming wave of violent crime.
     
  • Certain cities, such as Milwaukee and St. Louis, have seen sharp rises in murder rates. These increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic, suggesting community conditions are a major factor. Along with Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans, these cities have murder rates nine times the national average, but also have significantly lower incomes, higher poverty rates, higher unemployment, and falling populations than the national average.

The report examines month-to-month and year-to-year crime numbers using data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police departments. The authors conclude that rhetoric around a “crime rise” should not stand in the way of federal, state, or local reforms to improve our justice system and reduce prison populations.

Read the full report, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis.

Read more about the Brennan Center’s work to reduce mass incarceration.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292-8381 or naren.daniel@nyu.edu