RE: AJC Presents a Conflicting Crime Narrative: Falling Rates or War Zone?

Just piggybacking on what Scot wrote for clarification and additional information as it relates to violent crime, specifically firearm-related crime. He is, indeed, right that I can make a nerd bored when it comes to discussing crime data and criminal justice reform. I also have other policy interests for which I can do the same thing. Don’t get me on music and the recent interest I’ve developed in biblical scholarship, but neither of those has anything to do with what I do for a living or what I want to talk discuss in this post.

On the clarification side, I want to be clear that we saw increases in violent crime that began in 2020. However, indications are that those reported instances of violent crime are beginning to decline, at least in raw numbers. That’s according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association. (I don’t have the time to search population figures to calculate crime rates, and the FBI’s UCR for 2021 was worthless last year because the data were so incomplete.)

The mid-year data for 2023 show across-the-board declines in homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault compared to mid-year 2022 in 69 of the 70 reporting agencies. It’s also worth noting that there were declines in homicides and rape in calendar year 2022 compared to calendar year 2021. (As an aside, Canada has seen its own increases in violent crime, so this problem isn’t unique to the United States, though I’ll concede that Canada isn’t the United States and has a population roughly comparable to California and significantly fewer reported instances of crime than Los Angeles.)

There are jurisdictions that have seen increases in one or more of these categories in the first six months of 2023 compared to the same time in 2022, but in total, there’s a decline. That’s good news. However, Atlanta reports declines in all four categories of violent crime in the first six months of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022.

Now, what has caused the increases in crime in 2020 through 2022 is up for debate. Reasonable assumptions are that a decline in mental health from isolation caused by COVID lockdowns, economic problems caused by the pandemic, persisting economic problems worsened by the pandemic, racial tensions, political tensions, and untreated addiction problems each contributed to varying degrees. Other factors may also be at play. Keep in mind that there’s still a debate on what caused the decline in violent crime after its peak in 1991. The best estimate is that the increased reliance on incarceration that was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s is responsible for only 25 percent of the decline.

Looking at that decline in crime compared to the FBI UCR for 2020, the United States seeing violent crime at exactly the same rate that it saw in 2012 and only slightly higher than 2016. (See the chart below.) As I mentioned, the 2021 data are useless because so many jurisdictions didn’t report their numbers and the 2022 data aren’t yet available and still may be useless.  In 2020, based on UCR data, Georgia’s violent crime rate was lower than it was in 2010 but still higher than it had been in the years before.

As it relates to additional information, the FBI UCR isn’t the only lens through which we can view crime. The Bureau of Justice Statistics produces an annual report based on data collected through the National Crime Victimization Survey. The report includes data on unreported crime victimizations, as well as reported crimes. I’m not arguing that the National Crime Victimization Survey is a better barometer for crime than the raw numbers we get from law enforcement agencies. Still, there’s a difference in the narrative. Why? Because the National Crime Victimization Survey shows a 20 percent decline in violent victimizations from 2017 to 2021.

Consider the decline since 1993. In 1993, there were 79.8 violent victimizations per 1,000 people 12 and older. In 2021, there were 16.5 per 1,000 people 12 and older. Violent victimizations in urban areas have, however, increased, from 19.0 per 1,000 people 12 and older in 2020 to 24.5 per 1,000 12 and older in 2021. I don’t have much data for comparisons for previous years.

Another piece of information from the survey and report is firearm victimizations. Now, let me be clear here. I’m alarmed by the stories about shootings at schools. I graduated from high school in McDonough, Georgia about a month after Columbine and a couple of weeks after a school shooting in Conyers. I recall people in school guessing who would do something similar at my high school. It was a fear then. It’s a fear now. Are there reasonable steps that can be taken to address gun violence that respect both due process and the right to possess a firearm? I believe there are, but I’ve yet to see legislation, at the state level or federally, that accomplishes both goals.

What I want to do here, though, isn’t talk about the solutions as much as I want to contextualize the debate around firearm violence. In 1993, the firearm victimization debate was 7.2 per 1,000 people 12 and older. It has declined. Substantially. In 2020, it was 1.3 per 1,000 people 12 and older. In 2021, it was 1.2 per 1,000 people 12 and older.

One of the things that frustrates me the most when I talk to partisans about criminal justice reform is that both sides tend to run to what’s comfortable to them when discussing crime. When you’re talking to “tough on crime” Republicans, they don’t want to acknowledge that a) we tend to have more violence in the United States than other developed countries and that it appears to be in our nature as a society and b) the liberalization of gun laws plays to the gun control crowd even when the data don’t back them up. That’s not to say the liberalization of gun laws is something I’m against. I’m a gun owner, but there are people in our society who shouldn’t have access to guns. We need to recognize that and find a workable solution.

When you’re talking to Democrats, they don’t want to acknowledge that a) the data don’t often back up their claims about gun violence and b) the focus on gun violence undermines further efforts to reform the criminal justice system. I have no idea what Patricia Murphy’s views are on criminal justice reform. I also don’t care. The narrative about gun violence that comes from pundits in the media is often the same narrative that comes from even my most committed progressive allies on criminal justice reform. The problem is the narrative is a big issue if you truly want to do more on criminal justice reform other than preach to the choir.

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