Although the rate of violent crime showed a slight increase nationally last year, federal officials should be cautious about overreacting to the data.
Such discretion is unlikely from President Donald Trump, who last fall declared himself the law-and-order candidate and who used his inauguration speech to decry “American carnage” in cities. It also is unlikely from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who reacted to Monday’s release of statistics from the FBI by saying, “For the sake of all Americans, we must confront and turn back the rising tide of violent crime.”
Trump and Sessions often have implied that the United States is descending into violent lawlessness while blaming immigrants and gangs. But the truth is far different from the dystopian portrait they have painted while benefiting from the politics of fear.
Although violent crime — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — showed an uptick in both 2015 and 2016, it remains near historically low levels. Last year, law enforcement reported 386 offenses per 100,000 people; in 1991, the violent crime rate was nearly twice as high, at 758 offenses per 100,000 people. Since 2007, the rate of violent crime has dropped 18 percent.
Overall, the United States is significantly safer now than it was 25 years ago or even 10 years ago, but that doesn’t fit the narrative preferred by the administration. In Clark County, the rate of both violent crime and property crime declined slightly last year.
As Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post: “The fundamental thing is, national summaries are really sort of empty calories. There’s no real information in there to guide policy, or citizen concerns, because the action is all very local. Some cities have more problems than others, and in those cities some neighborhoods have more problems than others. To talk about national anything is just politics.”
Because of that, Sessions’ rhetoric about crime is disconcerting. He has pushed for tougher sentencing for even nonviolent crimes, reviving the failed and costly war on drugs of the 1980s. And he has used an anti-crime platform to demonize minorities. Suggesting lengthy sentences for minor drug offenses might ease the concerns of some citizens, but its practical effects are to take focus away from more serious issues, fill prisons, and needlessly destroy lives.
Both at the federal level and in many states, the trend in recent decades has been toward lesser sentences for lesser offenses, recognizing that one of the hallmarks of true justice is punishment that fits the crime. As Brett Tolman, a U.S. Attorney for Utah under President George W. Bush, said earlier this year: “Decades of experience shows we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of America’s drug problem. Instead, we must direct resources to treatment and to specifically combating violent crime. This will help law enforcement do our jobs better.”
For citizens, crime resonates at the local level. While national statistics can illuminate trends, what matters to people is when their car gets prowled or when their neighbor’s house gets burglarized. The 2016 rate of violent crime in Clark County was 239 incidents per 100,000 people, and the rate of property crime was 2,060 per 100,000 people — both significantly below the national average.
Those are encouraging signs, but not a call for complacency; preventing crime requires diligence on the part of citizens and law enforcement. At the same time, it calls for a reasonable response rather than panic from the federal government.