Under control, for now
Many Americans seem to think so. Last October, 70 percent of those asked told Gallup pollsters that crime is on the increase. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump regularly claims in his well-covered appearances that “crime is rising.” Surges in violence in cities like Chicago have landed on newspaper front pages across the country.
But there’s almost no evidence of either a significant rise in crime or a fundamental change in the largely effective anticrime policies—better policing tactics and increased incarceration—that were adopted starting in the 1980s. Recent efforts at criminal-justice reform, ranging from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act pending in Congress to changes in local police practices, couldn’t have plausibly affected national crime rates. On the whole, there’s little reason to panic about rising crime or to think that modest reforms under consideration will do harm.
The numbers tell the story. The aggregate rates of the nine crimes the FBI tracks nationally continued to drop during the first six months of 2015, the most recent period for which data are available. Violent crime, which is dominated by the rate of aggravated assaults, rose slightly, as did murder rates. But more common and numerous crimes like thefts and burglary continued long-term declines.
There’s also a dearth of evidence that people are underreporting crime. The 2014 National Criminal Victimization survey, a massive poll of the American population that captures unreported crimes, shows a similar decline in property crime and a decrease in violence. None of the nation’s 10 largest cities—not even Chicago—has more overall crime than it did in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
We aren’t letting lots of criminals out on the streets, either. While sentencing policies have been tweaked in recent years by the federal government and more than 20 states, the aggregate impact remains minimal. The total number of people in prison and jail peaked at slightly more than 2.31 million in 2008 and fell to 2.21 million at the end of 2014, a decline of about 4 percent. Data from a few big states show modest drops in 2015. It’s implausible to think that continued minor reforms are suddenly going to cause crime to skyrocket.
What explains the chasm between perception and reality? First, people have always overestimated crime when pollsters ask. Even before the recent spate of stories and political attention, Americans nearly always reported that they think crime is rising. Perhaps because of the media adage “if it bleeds it leads,” public perception simply doesn’t reflect reality. And a genuine explosion of opioid use in rural America, as well as a continued methamphetamine crisis, appears to be contributing to rising crime rates in some parts of the country where crime was not an issue before. This may be more noticeable than continued decreases in still somewhat dangerous large cities.
It’s true that Chicago and a few other cities are seeing a real trend toward “de-policing” that is driving up crime in those locales. Officers in such cities continue to answer 911 calls but, because of political dictates, racial tensions, and fear of censure, largely have retreated from the highly effective “directed patrol” strategies that helped bring down crime in the 1990s. One local website, DNA Chicago, reports that police-stop contacts are down almost 80 percent over the past year. These directed patrols, also called “cops on dots,” involve sending police officers to known crime hotspots. Nearly all large police departments have used them since the late 1990s. A 2000 Urban Institute study concluded they were probably the single most important change in police procedure contributing to the decline in crime.
The tactics used can range from hard-nosed policies insisting officers “stop and frisk” anyone who looks suspicious to more neighborhood-oriented efforts. Officers sometimes encourage “positive loitering” on street corners by members of the community looking to chase out gang members, agreeing to look the other way at minor offenses like public drinking and underage tobacco use. “Broken windows” or “quality of life” tactics involve cracking down on other minor offenses, like public urination and graffiti. These are just some methods among many. When I did research in the Chicago Police Department in the early 2000s, much of the department’s strategy involved lots of casual conversations intended to build relationships with law-abiding citizens, while letting gangsters know the police were watching, rather than trying to make lots of arrests. Chicago also made heavy use of “saturation teams” that created a sense of police omnipresence in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Chicago is almost alone in having abandoned its directed-patrols strategy entirely. Even there, the problem is more a matter of toxic racial and police politics than actual orders from the top. Despite some well-publicized changes in tactics, crime has continued to decline significantly in New York City, where overall rates are just 20 percent of what they were in 1990.
It’s quite possible that wrongheaded prison reform could land lots of genuine troublemakers on the streets or that urban politics could send other cities down the same ill-considered path as Chicago. It’s also possible that opioid use in rural America could spiral out of control and spill into bigger cities. But to date, sentencing reforms have been too timid to be plausible as an explanation for changes in crime rates. Police tactics haven’t changed significantly in most places, and most crime statistics continue to move in the right direction in most of the country. On balance, the United States continues to stay the course that conservative policymakers set in the 1980s and 1990s—crime, for the most part, continues to decline.