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Is the new crime wave upon us? Don’t believe the headlines

The FBI released preliminary estimates for crime in the year 2005 earlier this week. This is how the headlines read:

From The Independent, a British newspaper, writes:

“Violent crime on the increase, says FBI report”

The first line of the article says “The United States is experiencing its biggest jump in violent crime in 15 years…”
From CNN:

“Violent crime takes first big jump since ’91”

From NPR:

“US violent crime rises at pace unseen in 10 years”

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

“FBI:Violent crime on rise in 2005”

Based on these headlines, you might think that the next great crime wave arrived in 2005.

Perhaps you remember James Alan Fox from Freakonomics. He is the one we write about who did the report for Janet Reno that predicted a “bloodbath” of youth violence, even as crime was starting to plunge in the 1990s. He echoes the concerns of these headlines (but with a little more moderation than he used back in the 1990s:

Criminal justice experts said the statistics reflect the nation’s complacency in fighting crime, a product of dramatic declines in the 1990s and the abandonment of effective programs that emphasized prevention, putting more police officers on the street and controlling the spread of guns.

“We see that budgets for policing are being slashed and the federal government has gotten out of that business,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “Funding for prevention at the federal level and many localities are down and the (National Rifle Association) has renewed strength.”

Still, Fox said, “We’re still far better off than we were during the double-digit crime inflation we saw in the 1970s.”

In light of this media reporting, I think it is interesting to read what the FBI news release actually says:

Preliminary figures indicate that, as a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation reported an increase of 2.5 percent in the number of violent crimes brought to their attention in 2005 when compared to figures reported for 2004. The violent crime category includes murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The number of property crimes in the United States from January to December of 2005 decreased 1.6 percent when compared to data from the same time period in 2004. Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. Arson is also a property crime, but data for arson are not included in property crime totals. Figures for 2005 indicated that arson decreased 2.2 percent when compared to 2004 figures.

So the actual increase in violent crime from 2004 to 2005: 2.5%. Given that violent crime has fallen 40-50% since its peak, this hardly seems like reason to panic. And I find it very interesting that none of the headlines I could find made any mention of the fact that property crime fell 1.6 percent. I guess after so many years of falling crime, more falling crime just isn’t newsworthy.

While the pundits are eager to start explaining the many reasons for this “sharp rise” in violent crime, my view is that all of this is nonsense. Prison populations are growing slightly, and my guess is the number of police is growing slightly as well. By now we have gotten almost all of the expected benefits of legalized abortion and crack-related crime is flat. Other demographic shifts are too small to matter on an annual basis. So all in all the factors that I believe to influence crime basically predict no big shifts in crime one way or the other. Given the inherent variability in crime, it is not at all surprising to see shifts up or down a few percent.

But that doesn’t make for exciting headlines.