Crime Stats for 2013 Show Continued Decreases in Crime
When I teach my Introduction to Criminal Justice course, I ask my students a series of questions on the first day of class. One of those questions is this: Is crime in the U.S. going up or down?
A majority of students answer that question without hesitation. Of course, they say, crime is definitely going up. Most students believe this. Most citizens believe this.
Gallup Polls regularly over the years ask people if crime is going up or down in their community. Invariably, the pollster finds the same results year after year. Most people surveyed don’t have a clue about what is really happening with crime; most tend to believe that crime is high and continuing to go up.
On occasion, when police officers are guests in my class, they, too, say they believe crime is increasing. What makes this often so ironic is that the statistics put out by their own departments say otherwise.
So, there is a strong belief in this country that crime is ever on the rise. This, despite the fact that every fall the FBI releases its Uniform Crime Report for the previous year. Just this week, the FBI issued its report for 2013. Contrary to what my students and the public at large thinks, again, for the 18th out of the last 20 years crime has not gone up – it has gone down.
The latest FBI report, entitled Crime in the United States, 2013, and available on the FBI’s website, shows that the estimated number of violent crimes in 2013 decreased 4.4 percent when compared with 2012 figures, and the estimated number of property crimes decreased 4.1 percent.
This is the official estimate of crime in America and it is based on the data submitted from more than 18,000 city, county, state, tribal, campus, and federal law enforcement agencies. The crimes reported include the violent crimes of murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, and the property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
Just so you can be more knowledgeable than the general public, the FBI’s crime stats show there were 14,196 murders in 2013. This compares to 1993 when there more than 24,000 murders in the U.S. That number has been steadily dropping since 1993. One other statistic worth looking at is the number of car thefts in the U.S.. In 2013, there were 699,594 cars stolen. Compare that to the early 1990s, when there were more than a million and a half vehicle thefts a year and you can see that the amount of auto thefts has decreased by at least 40 percent since the 1990s.
There are at least two important questions that can be asked each year when reviewing the crime stats: 1.) Why aren’t more people aware that crime has been consistently decreasing for 20 years? and 2.) Why has both property crime and violent crime been going down?
So, why don’t most people know that crime in America has been decreasing?
One possible reason is that when the FBI stats come out each year, even though there are many newspaper and television stories about this report, most people may either not be paying attention or they have a short memory. I suspect both. We are inundated with so many news stories, perhaps people only remember those stories that have some kind of emotional connection for them. Since most people are not the victims of crimes, they may not have a good reason to remember these stats.
Instead, it may be that what grabs people at a more visceral level is what they see or hear on a local level about crime. Unfortunately, as we just witnessed during the mid-term elections, there are many politicians who use fears about crime to win votes. If you see an ad several times that reinforces the idea that the person who “”approves this message” is going to be tough on crime, you may – if you don’t really know the facts – come to believe that since they are on television they must know what they are talking about. And if they are going to get tougher on crime than there opponent, there must be a reason why. There must be a lot of crime!
Finally, I think the reason people in the U.S. have such a distorted view of how much crime there is has to do with how much TV they watch. If they watch crime and cop shows, and if they watch the news, they are likely to think that murders happen all the time and that there is an epidemic of crime in their city or community.
But the second question is fascinating as well. Why has crime been going down for 20 years?
Is it because we are less violent and less criminal as a society? Probably not.
Is it because we‘ve locked so many people up in the last 30 years that all the criminals are now imprisoned? That theory has been disproved.
Is it because of the economy, which is on the uptick right now? No, the economy has boomed (particularly in the 1990s) and it went bust in the first decade of the 21st century. The economy seems to have nothing to do with most crime.
So, what is it?
I would like to think that it’s because we have better policing and because more law enforcement agencies are employing more community policing strategies. That’s what I’d like to think. But there’s is no evidence to prove it.
Just before James Q. Wilson died in March, 2012, he was strongly leaning toward the opinion that the reduction of lead from paints and gasoline has played a significant role in crime reduction. When you look at the statistics and compare lead removal and decreases in crime rates, they seem to be highly correlated. Of course, correlation doesn’t prove cause, but I think it’s the best, most compelling theory we have at the moment.
I’ll let you know if a better theory comes along.