That’s the question I had to ask myself after reading Dana D. Kelley’s recent Arkansas Democrat Gazette column “The low crime myth” (May 27, 2011; free registration required). The FBI released its preliminary crime report for 2010 and reported a 5.5% decrease in violent crime, 4.4% decrease in murder, and 2.8% decrease in property crime. As shown in table 3, almost all categories of crime have been declining since 2006. These data refer to the number of crimes reported, not to crime rates (which are measured in number of crimes per 100,000 population).
These data are good news, and they are not a “myth” – they are the most reliable figures we have. Then why is Dana Kelley in such a gloomy mood?
The greater misfortune is that while crime is ostensibly down nearly 11 percent over the past two years, it is far from low – but you wouldn’t know it from the published reactions of criminology experts. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, termed the latest drop “remarkable”.
Is it not? Apparently not in Dana Kelley’s universe. Crime is still “far from low”, he says, but by what standard?
How about as low as, say, 1965? That was only a couple of generations ago, for heaven’s sake, but in terms of violent crime, it is worlds away from the so-called “low” rates these experts are dumb-founded over.
Why 1965? Why not 1925 or 1985? Kelley doesn’t explain. Of course, the 1960s were economic boom times with full employment whereas we are now in a deep economic crisis with record unemployment and record inequality. We know that crime rates tend to be higher during bad economic times, which makes recent declines even more remarkable.
Looking at FBI crime statistics from 1990 to 2009 (2010 figures are not included because they are preliminary), one sees a quite dramatic reduction in crime rates in all categories: Murder, from 9.4 to 5.0; Forcible rape, from 41.1 to 28.7; robbery, from 256.3 to 133.0; property crime, from 5073.1 to 3036.1. If this isn’t “remarkable” in Kelley’s eyes, I don’t know what universe he lives in. Sure, you can always see the glass as half empty instead of half full. It is hard to argue with the sentiment that every crime is a crime too many. But when writing a column about crime statistics, surely you would at least want to mention the good news?
One wonders whether there could be a political explanation for Kelley’s gloominess? After all, the biggest drops in crime rates occurred during the Clinton years. The Bush years have seen crime rates stabilize but not improve. Murder rates slightly increased from 5.5 in 2000 to 5.8 in 2006, and have fallen to about 4.7 in 2010 (my calculation based on FBI and census data). Could it be, could it really be, that Kelley has trouble acknowledging good things happening under a democratic president?
So what about Kelley’s 1965 baseline? Is it true that we are “worlds away” from the good old early 1960s? Here is a table with crime statistics from 1960 to 2009 (scroll down to the rates per 100,000 Inhabitants). Comparing 1965 with 2009, vehicle theft and burglary are about the same; aggravated assault and robbery are about 100% higher; forcible rape is 130% higher; murder is slightly lower (it was 5.1 in 1965). Kelley correctly points out that violent crime in the aggregate, while at its lowest since 1974, is twice as high as it was in 1965. But he does not mention that the 2010 murder rate was actually lower than in 1965.
Murder rates, of course, are our most reliable crime figures because they are most likely to be reported. Rape or assault are to a large extent under-reported which makes comparisons across time tricky. To be sure, the US murder rate is still high in international comparison (two to four times the rate of Canada or Western Europe). My contention is absolutely not that we should be happy with current crime levels. But it puzzles me why columnist Kelley is so intent on cherry-picking his comparisons to make rather good news look bad.
Addendum: An older post at StreetJazz has this to say about Dana Kelley:
The whiter-than-white columnist who writes a regular column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (and other papers) is regularly suspected of harboring racist tendencies. Rarely does a month go by when he does not write sneeringly of minorities, especially when it comes to crime and punishment.
Update June 21: no single root cause will ever explain crime but apart from economic factors, which do affect crime rates, an important factor is the war on drugs. A letter in today’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette makes that point well:
In a recent column, Dana Kelley wonders why the U.S. crime rate is two to four times (depending on the category of crime) what it was in 1965. I guess the obvious can be hard to see. It’s the same reason that the U.S. incarceration rate has grown to be the highest in the world. A reason that I suspect most of his readers saw instantly. The modern “war on drugs” began in the late 1960s during the Nixon administration. The Drug Enforcement Agency was founded in 1973. Obviously, the answer to Kelley’s query is drug prohibition, and the only way to get back to lower rates is to re-legalize drugs. As Portugal’s amazing success shows, drug dependency is better treated as a mental health issue, not a law enforcement issue.
BILL ORTON Fayetteville