Homeworks academic writing service


The decrease of crime rate across the nation

Christopher Jencks Winter 1991 News reports of an all-time record crime wave have set off a panic that America is out of control. What are the real facts?

In the short run, they are right: Violent crime did increase between 1985 and 1990. But what really worries most people is not the short-run trend but their sense that violent crime has been climbing steadily for a long time and that the future will only bring further increases. Such worries are linked to anxiety about drugs, permissive childrearing, hedonism, declining academic standards, the growth of the ghetto underclass, and our collective inability to compete with the Japanese.

Taken together, these fears have convinced many sensible people that American society is on the skids. America certainly has more violence than other rich countries. We also have more rapes, robberies, and assaults than other rich countries.

But this is nothing new. Crime rates have always been much higher in America than in other affluent nations. Indeed, violence is part of our national mythology. We shed more blood settling our frontier than any other New World nation, and we made more movies glorifying the bloodshed.

Our struggle over slavery was also far bloodier than any other nation's. We have lived with this grim heritage for a long time. For those who fear that American society is coming unglued, however, the question is not how America compares to other countries but whether our traditional ways of containing violence have broken down.

Here the answer is more ambiguous. America is more violent today than at many times in its past. But it is no more violent than it was during most of the 1970s. Thus, there is no obvious reason for thinking that chaos is just around the corner. The best available indicator of long-term trends in violence is the murder rate. An American's chance of being murdered was relatively low in the 1950s and early 1960s.

It doubled between 1964 and 1974, remained high from 1974 to 1980, declined significantly between 1980 and 1985, and edged back up in the late 1980s. In 1989 the murder rate was higher than it had been from 1983 to 1988, lower than it had been from 1972 to 1982, and higher than it had been from 1950 to 1972. Victimization surveys -- that is, surveys asking the decrease of crime rate across the nation whether they have been the victims of crimes -- suggest that non-lethal violence has followed the same trajectory.

Furthermore, black-white differences in the incidence of violence have been diminishing, not increasing.

Is Violent Crime Increasing?

Nonetheless, most Americans are convinced that America has become much more dangerous. One reason is that American cities really are considerably more violent than they were between 1945 and 1965, when middle-aged Americans were growing up.

But even younger Americans, who grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, think America has become more violent. Here the explanation is subtler. When most of us think of the past we think of our childhood. Most middle-class Americans grow up in placid residential neighborhoods where violent crime has always been quite rare. Middle-class adults lead less sheltered lives. They usually work in cities rather than suburbs, and they expose themselves to risks to which they would never expose their children.

When today's children grow up and remember their youth, they too will think the world has grown more violent, even if the crime rate remains unchanged.

  • The Effects of the Baby Boom Arrest data suggest that men between the ages of 15 and 24 are about three times as likely as older men to commit violent crimes;
  • America certainly has more violence than other rich countries;
  • If we focus on trends for the past year or two, as news reports usually do, we find significant increases in most cities.

The latter really did experience an extraordinary increase in lethal violence during the 1980s, and this increase got far more attention than what happened in San Diego or Atlanta or Omaha. The mass media also have a very selective approach to crime statistics.

When crime declines, as it did in the early 1980s, editors assume the decline is only temporary and give it very little air time. When crime increases, as it did in the late 1980s, both journalists and editors see the increase as a portent of things to come and give it a lot of play. It referred briefly to the fact that the national murder rate was considerably lower in 1988 than in 1980 but concentrated on explaining the recent increase, not the earlier decline. Two weeks later the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report predicting that the number of murders would reach an all-time high in 1990.

5 facts about crime in the U.S.

This was front-page news across the country. But what the report neglected to mention, and most journalists also failed to note, was that the population will also reach an all-time high in 1990. Once we take this into account, the projected murder rate for 1990 is no higher than it was during most of the 1970s. The same journalistic bias operates when government agencies issue contradictory reports.

The FBI almost always reports that violent crime increased, and these reports almost always make the evening news. The BJS almost always reports that violent crime was constant or declined. Its reports, while more reliable than the FBI's, get far less attention. But this contrast raises another question. Why should two government agencies constantly reach different conclusions about trends in violent crime? But whereas BJS relies on survey data that are collected in the same way year after year, the FBI relies on administrative data, which are generated in a slightly different way every year.

These incremental changes make FBI statistics on non-lethal violence almost useless for analyzing changes over time. Police Estimates of Crime Every year most local police departments calculate the number of crimes committed within their jurisdiction.

  • Indeed, violence is part of our national mythology;
  • Those who want the government to provide young people with jobs are equally reluctant to admit that this will have only a modest effect on street crime;
  • Our struggle over slavery was also far bloodier than any other nation's.

They forward these estimates both to the local news media, which usually give them considerable attention, and to the FBI, which uses them to estimate the number of crimes "known to the police" nationwide. These FBI estimates suggest that violent crime has increased by a factor of four since 1960 and is now at an all-time high.

The FBI's index of violent crime has four components: Because robbery and aggravated assault are far more frequent than rape or murder, police and FBI estimates of violent crime depend largely on the number of robberies and aggravated assaults. Figure 1 shows trends in the FBI's estimate of the number of robberies and aggravated assaults per 100,000 persons in the population.

Both crimes appear to have increased dramatically between 1960 and 1980. Both declined slightly in the early 1980s. But aggravated assault began to rise again after 1983, pushing the overall index of violent crime to an all-time high in 1988.

Preliminary data for 1989 show another small rise. Before accepting this conclusion, however, we must ask what the numbers really measure. The FBI does not estimate the number of crimes committed in a given year. It estimates the number of crimes "known to the police.

Likewise, if someone complains to the police, but the police do not record the complaint, do not get around to investigating it, or conclude that it was legally unfounded, the incident will not be reported to the FBI. The proportion of all robberies and assaults recorded by the police was traditionally quite low. In 1973, when the Census Bureau conducted its first National Crime Survey NCScitizens' reports plus a survey of business establishments suggested that there had been about 1.

NCS respondents also reported 1. If the police had collected and recorded crime statistics the same way year after year, it might be reasonable to assume that their records included about the same fraction of all crimes today as in 1973.

The true crime rate would then be much higher the decrease of crime rate across the nation Figure 1 implies, but Figure 1 would still provide an accurate picture of trends over time.

  1. The police recorded only 421,000. The feeling rests on our belief that violence has risen steadily for the past quarter century, despite the best efforts of both liberals and conservatives to control it.
  2. When a husband assaults his wife with a kitchen knife, for example, neither she nor anyone else is likely to report this fact either to the police or to a victimization survey.
  3. Those who want to lock people up, for example, do not want to acknowledge that locking people up will, at best, have only a modest effect on violence.

In reality, however, the police are constantly changing the way they record crimes. The Census Bureau began conducting the NCS in 1973 because both criminologists and the police believed that a lot of crime was going unreported. The first NCS confirmed these suspicions.

Partly as a result, the Justice Department embarked on a major effort to help local police departments improve their record-keeping.

Rules for recording crimes were formalized, records were computerized, police departments spent more on record-keeping, and officers on the beat began spending more time on paperwork. These changes have not had much effect on the proportion of citizens reporting crimes to the police, but they have increased the proportion of citizen complaints recorded by the police and reported to the FBI.

What the Victimization Surveys Show Victimization surveys also underestimate the amount of violence in America. To begin with, survey respondents either forget or choose not to report a lot of the violence they experience.

NCS respondents report very little domestic violence, for example. Even when violence involves strangers, some people repress the memory fairly quickly.

NCS asks people whether they have been robbed or assaulted at any time in the past six months. Respondents report substantially more incidents in the two or three months just before the survey than in earlier months.

Crime Trends in California

Lapses of memory appear to be especially common among people for whom violence is an everyday occurrence and among people who have not finished high school. As a result, the NCS is especially likely to underestimate victimization rates for such people. In addition, the NCS undersamples certain groups with very high rates of victimization.

It does not even try to interview the homeless, for example, and it misses a large fraction of individuals who are seldom at home. The more time you spend away from home, the more likely you are to be robbed or assaulted.

Nonetheless, the NCS is conducted in the same way every year, so most of these biases are likely to be constant. So while the NCS almost certainly underestimates the level of violence in America, it should be a quite reliable guide to trends in violence. Figure 2 shows NCS estimates of trends in robberies and aggravated assaults per 100,000 persons. There is no clear trend in either kind of violence from 1973 to 1981.

After 1981 both robbery and aggravated assault began to decline, although aggravated assault increased again in 1988. According to the NCS, the aggravated assault rate fell 10 percent between 1973 and 1988, while the robbery rate fell 19 percent. According to the FBI, the aggravated assault rate rose 85 percent during this period, while the robbery rate rose 21 percent. The same pattern holds for forcible rape. According to the NCS, rape has followed almost the same trajectory as aggravated assault, holding steady during the 1970s and declining in the 1980s.

  • Yet the fraction of the adult population in federal and state prisons fell slightly during these years;
  • The BJS figures do not show an increase in the violent crime rate between 2014 and 2016, but they do not count murders;
  • The crime category that varies the most widely across regions is robbery:

As a result, the FBI recorded a 53 percent increase in the incidence of rape between 1973 and 1988, while the NCS recorded a 30 percent decline. Police estimates of trends in crime could differ from NCS estimates because victims are reporting a smaller proportion of violent crime to the NCS or because they are reporting a larger proportion to the police.