Crime is Down? Don't Confuse Us with the Facts
Karen Colvard, HFG Senior Program Officer
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"HOMICIDES PLUNGE" The New York Times of June 2, 1997 reported new FBI statistics on the continuing rapid decrease in serious crime in the United States for the fifth year in a row. This downward trend surprised many when it began in 1992--lots of us discounted it as a statistical blip. Now rates for violent crime and property crime in the U.S. are the lowest since crime rates began to rise in the late 1960s in tandem with dislocating changes in our inner cities. However there are two problems with this good news: criminologists can't explain why it is happening and ordinary citizens don't seem to believe that it's true.

In March 1997 America Online's national news discussion board, referring to the dramatic drop in violent crime being documented nationwide, asked its readers, "Do you feel safer?" Almost nobody did. A typical response:

I am sick and tired of hearing statistics being flouted about crime is down, etc. etc. Who exactly computes this impossible venture? No I don't feel safe....what we really need is police protection, victim rights...more laws to protect the innocent. Aren't we too taken up with the criminal's rights, race, etc.? Until they (whoever they are) stop spending money on false surveys about a serious problem such as the actual crime problems that are getting worse, take that money and put more police on the streets and burn half of those stupid laws that protect the obvious criminal. It's a disgrace that our country can't get this together.(1)

The public holds firm opinions about crime and justice, and the increasingly punitive policies being offered by elected (or would-be elected) policy makers--more prisons, stricter sentencing, an expanded death penalty, and harsh responses to offenses involving any type of drug--are meant to allay the fears of those who believe that America is a dangerous place, beset by random violence which could strike anyone, anywhere, fueled by an epidemic of drug addiction and related crime. This has led Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie to label American penal practices "democratic crime control," and he doesn't mean that as a compliment--he sees in it a coercive state controlling a disenfranchised minority who are perceived as a "criminal class" by the mainstream majority of voters, who fear crime committed by these others against them.(2) A recent State Supreme Court ruling in California is typical of this: it allows police to prevent people they suspect of involvement in gang activities from any form of association--"standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering, or appearing anywhere in public view," the court order said. They can also be arrested and imprisoned for making loud noises, climbing trees, or carrying beepers, marking pens, or marbles.(3) Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti told the New York Times in February 1997, "It gives us a valuable tool in our arsenal against gang activity. It permits us to move before crimes are committed."

The lack of high-level debate over such strategies was evident in the most recent presidential election campaign. Bill Clinton's reiterated pride in his Crime Bill's additional "100,000 police on the streets" was criticized: "It's been the most careful political calculation, with absolutely sublime indifference to the real nature of the problem.... [Violent crime] is a problem that is concentrated within very clearly defined geographic boundaries. And the President is going to spread cops into every suburb of the country."(4) But not by his opponent Bob Dole, who in his campaign doggedly vowed "to attack the root cause of crime--criminals, violent criminals."(5)

However, the lack of sensible leadership at the highest levels of the government is matched by the bewilderment of those whose calling is to understand patterns of crime and violence. The mostly-liberal criminologists who firmly believe that restrictive laws and harsh punishments contribute to rises in crime, not decreases, have offered very little useful analysis of why violent crime is abating or advice about how to encourage further reductions. "This is a humbling time for all crime analysts. It is a puzzlement," says Princeton criminal justice professor John J. DiIulio, Jr., who is himself an equally persuasive proponent of preventive, faith-based social interventions and strong punitive state responses to criminality.(6)

Part of the problem may be that the public doesn't really know what it thinks it knows. In 1992 Canadian criminologist Julian Roberts reviewed studies by himself and others which revealed the public's extremely limited knowledge about crime and punishment.(7) The Canadian public tended to overestimate victimization rates for violent crime, the number of violent crimes, the increase in crime, and recidivism rates, and not by small errors. For example, while some 13-17% of first-time offenders in Canada are subsequently convicted of another crime, 4 out of 5 of the survey respondents offered guesses ranging between 60 and 100%. They were also ignorant of penalties for particular crimes, which they estimated to be much lower than they were in fact. This poses a problem not only to the political realities of legislating responses to crime but also to deterrence theory. If people--including, presumably, some who might be contemplating committing a crime--think penalties for crime are slight, is anybody likely to be deterred by threat of punishment?

Roberts believes that part of this misinformation comes from news media reports, which tend to highlight violent crimes in decontextualized, oversimplified reporting. He cites a 1990 study in the U.S. which showed that 30% of news stories about crime featured homicide, which accounted that year for only .02% of reported crimes.

George Gerbner, the retired dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, has shown that heavy television users, in comparison to moderate viewers, are particularly inaccurate in their perceptions of the threat of violent crime. He has spent his career demonstrating that television, in both news and entertainment programs, has fostered a "mean world" view of human relationships. "Growing up in a violence-laden culture breeds aggressiveness in some and desensitization, insecurity, mistrust, and anger in most," he says. "Punitive and vindictive action against dark forces in a mean world is made to look appealing, especially when presented as quick, decisive, and enhancing our sense of control and security."(8) He thinks "facts" about crime garnered from TV and attitudes learned from how television characters, even--especially--heroes, use violence are important motivators for the public's support of capital punishment and coercive forms of crime control.

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