Early on in last night’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, when the questions turned to crime and justice, Trump spoke like a tough-on-crime politician from the 1980s. Saying that we “have a situation where we have our inner cities, African Americans, Hispanics living in hell because it’s so dangerous,” he argued that we “have to bring back law and order.” He then pushed for expanding the use of stop-and-frisk, stating that “murders are up.”
At first glance, the 2015 Uniform Crime Reports—the FBI’s assessment of crime rates nationwide, which was released yesterday—seem to back up Trump’s concerns. There were more violent crimes in 2015 than in 2014, particularly murders. Compared to 2014, 2015 experienced about 1,500 more murders (an 11 percent increase), 6,000 (or 5 percent) more forcible rapes, 4,500 (or 1 percent) more robberies, and 33,000 (or 5 percent) more aggravated assaults. (Most property crime, however, continued to fall, with burglaries down 8 percent and thefts down 2 percent.)
The picture Trump painted, however, was unnecessarily bleak. Dangerously so, in fact. The American criminal-justice system is inherently prone to overreact to the slightest bit of bad news. In Arkansas, for example, a 10 percent decline in prison populations suddenly turned into a 25 percent rise when a single murder in 2013 caused prosecutors, judges, and parole officers to act much more harshly. It is imperative that we not overreact to the new crime statistics, and there are at least four major reasons for us all to remain calm.
Crime remains at historic lows.
Despite the increases cited in yesterday’s FBI report—the rise in murders in 2015 was the largest in both absolute and percentage terms since crime started dropping in the early 1990s—the United States remains an historically safe place to live. The murder rate in 2015 is still lower than it was in 2009, and before 2009 the last time the murder rate was as low as it was last year was in 1964. Overall, 2015 had the third-lowest violent crime rate since at least 1970, and probably even before that, since our older crime stats likely understate crime much more than they do today.
Yes, crime went up in 2015. But crime remained at near historic lows in 2015, too. Both of these statements can be, and are true. Despite the rise in violent crime, we remain safer today than we have been in decades.
One year is never a “trend.”
People often talk about the “steady decline in crime” since the early 1990s, but that’s not entirely accurate. Between 1991 and 2014, the number of murders fell from almost 25,000 to slightly more than 14,000—but the number of murders rose during seven of those 23 years, including four years in a row from 2000 to 2003. Forcible rapes rose in seven years as well, robberies in three, and aggravated assaults in four. In fact, 2005 and 2006 saw two consecutive years of increases in every crime except forcible rape (which rose only in 2006). Yet even then we continued to talk about declining crime—despite two years of increases and despite the fact that levels were higher then than they are today. That’s because one and two year changes are not trends.