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The Latest on Homicide Rates


Nothing grabs headlines like dire warnings about homicide trends. And there is no criminologist better at garnering headlines than James Alan Fox, whom you might remember from Freakonomics for the ominous reports he produced about juvenile homicide for Attorney General Janet Reno in the 1990’s, even as crime began to plunge.

James Alan Fox is baaaack with a new report that is garnering headlines. The New York Times writes: “Homicides by Black Teenagers Rise, Bucking a Trend.”

The Wall Street Journal is even more precise: “Murders of Black Teens Are Up 39 Percent Since 2000-01,” although actually murders by black teens are up more than murders of black teens.

So is it time to panic, or at least to take dramatic action? If you look at The New York Times graphic accompanying the story, it sure seems that way.

When the data are displayed differently, you likely come to a different conclusion. Here is Figure 4 from the James Alan Fox report:


This figure presents homicide rates by age for blacks from 1976 to 2007. The dominant pattern in this picture is the huge spike in black youth homicides in the early 1990’s. The phenomenon captured in the scary New York Times graphic above corresponds to the barely perceptible rise in the black circles at the far right of the figure.

Why do things look so different in The New York Times graphic versus the figure from Fox’s own report?

1) Compared to the early 1990’s, what is happening now is much smaller in scale.

2) When put side-by-side with no trend in the homicide rates of blacks aged 18 to 24 (the gray circles in the graph), the blip by 14- to 17-year-olds doesn’t seem so frightening.

And the most important (and I would say devious) difference between the two figures:

3) The numbers in The New York Times graphic and most of the James Alan Fox report fail to control for the change in the population of young black males over this time period.

According to U.S. Census data, the number of blacks aged 15 to 19 rose by about 15 percent between 2000 and 2007.

So even if any individual black teen’s propensity for crime was unchanged over this time period, the aggregate amount of black-teen crime would have risen by 15 percent. In other words, in that New York Times graphic on perpetrators, just based on changes in population, the number of perpetrators would have been expected to rise from a little over 800 to nearly 1,000. Knowing that, the actual rise to roughly 1,150 doesn’t seem that noteworthy.

In his report, James Alan Fox argues for the “importance of restoring federal funds for crime prevention and crime control.” While I suspect that directing federal money toward crime control would be a better use of funds than continued bailouts, I would argue that it is time to experiment with something more radical that would actually save the government an enormous amount of money: ending the war on drugs.

More on that soon.