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The Next Crime Wave is Upon Us, Right?

The following are headlines from this week’s major newspapers following the release of official 2006 crime statistics:

From the Washington Post:

Violent Crime, a Sticky Issue for White House, Shows Steeper Rise

From the Los Angeles Times:

Violent Crime Rises Again

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Rise in Violent Crimes is Higher than Expected

It is official. The next crime wave has hit. According to the Washington Post, “[v]iolent crime in the United States rose more than previously believed in 2006, continuing the most significant increase in more than a decade, according to an FBI report released yesterday.”

As I have previously noted, the media loves to put the most frightening spin possible on crime statistics, no matter how benign they might actually be. They did not disappoint with the latest set of statistics.

What actually happened to crime? The number of violent crimes increased 2 percent and the number of property crimes fell 2 percent. The more relevant numbers are the crime rates, which take into account changes in population. Since the U.S. population is growing by 1 percent per year, the number of violent crimes per person rose 1 percent and the number of property crimes per person fell by 3 percent.

This figure from the L.A. Times tells the story far better than the headlines.

It is also interesting to note this dinky little A.P. item the other day about the substantial drop in New York State crime in 2007:

New York State’s overall crime rate continued to drop in the first half of 2007, with the number of rapes decreasing 19 percent and robberies dropping 13 percent, according to a report issued yesterday. Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced that the number of reported crimes dropped 5 percent, to 208,265 in the first half of 2007 from 219,550 in the first half of 2006. Murder was down 4 percent, vehicle thefts dropped 15 percent and burglary decreased 7 percent, the report said.

Like they say, if it bleeds, it leads; if not, it doesn’t get the front page or a big scary headline.

That said, the incredible declines in crime we saw in the 1990s do seem to have run their course. This is not a surprise. The major forces that I believe drove that decline — increases in the prison population and legalized abortion — have also leveled out. Prison populations are creeping up, but not growing by the leaps and bounds of the last few decades. On the abortion side, virtually every active criminal these days was born after abortion became legal, so the theory doesn’t predict any further declines in crime.