Is Dana Kelley unhappy about declining crime rates?

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


4 thoughts on “Is Dana Kelley unhappy about declining crime rates?

  1. My latest column on crime is a poor pick for ArkansasMediaWatch to zero in on as part of its mission to monitor opinion writer accountability, but a good example of a partisan, personal attack that fails to serve readers. I’m not unhappy about declining crime rates at all. What I’m unhappy about is the suffering violent crime causes in our society. The level of that violent crime is down a tad since last year, and down a lot since its peak in the 1990s, but still way up compared to when the FBI began keeping UCR statistics.

    I have written extensively about crime because it is an inexplicably under-reported news topic from an historical analysis standpoint. That’s partly because of politics, and partly because of ignorance. Violent crime data are voluminous, and vary widely across national, state and local categories. Sound bite reporting fails to present any real information on the broad tapestry of violent criminals and the victims left in their wake. As a media “watch” outfit, that should disappoint you as much as it does me.

    Instead, you appear to be in lock-step with the misinformation corps. The murder rate as a reliable crime indicator? Perhaps you’re not familiar with a Houston study done a few years back in which researchers analyzed gun crimes and determined that, absent modern technology which placed EMTs on crime scenes quicker with better life-saving medical equipment, the murder rate would have been seven times higher than it was. The murder rate is wildly unreliable for comparison to earlier years because attempted murders today would have been murders 30 years ago. Even so, national murder rates are too broad; New York City’s murder rate was up last year, as was that of several other cities. Plus, murders often involve domestic crimes of passion, which are beyond prevention regardless of government policy. That’s why I prefer to analyze aggravated assault and robbery rates — robbery is hardly ever a crime of passion, and assaults serve to neutralize the medical technology issue.

    Your organization’s name purports to represent Arkansas, but you only include national crime rate information in your rebuttal to my column — which emphatically localized that data to our state, where rates are embarrassingly high. I’m unhappy that crime experts yawn about violent incidents like assault, robbery and rape being twice as high as in 1965 on a national scale, but even more unhappy that ArkansasMediaWatch blindly joins in the chorus, when Arkansas’s numbers are so much worse. If I were as trigger-happy on questioning ulterior motivations as you are, I’d think your omission of Arkansas figures was just a case where you wanted to criticize me instead of enlightening your readers. By casually claiming that assault and robbery are up 100 percent since 1965 and rape up 130 percent, you are misinforming Arkansans because those are national numbers, not state statistics. You owe your readers the Arkansas figures, which are still up more than 400 percent in some cases, even after the “remarkable” drops the past few years. I think many of your readers will be as unhappy about that as I am.

    As for the 1965 date, evidently I did a poor job of explaining its relevance. The mid-1960s included watershed moments with regard to civil rights, education and healthcare, which was not the case in either 1925 or 1985. Part of my puzzlement is the fact that from the moment we passed legislation condemning discrimination and creating (and funding) better access to college and medical care, violent crime started getting worse. An objective observer would think the opposite would be true. As discrimination diminished, and more citizens went to college, and fewer citizens suffered without medical treatment, all in the name of higher civilization, the logical prediction would be that a more civilized populace would be less criminally violent. That’s why I think crime should be lower now than in the 1960s.

    I couldn’t care less who was president during certain crime periods. The president has virtually nothing to do with crime, which is always a mostly local issue. Even if I were disposed to that way of thinking, you and I both would have to hold Arkansas’s governors responsible for Arkansas’s drastically increased violent crime rates.

    Odds are that this has been a waste of my time and typing, if all you’re after is a personal argument with me. But if you truly do seek to restore responsibility and integrity to media reporting, you won’t find a better platform than crime. Not only does the public never get the whole story about violent crime, but every violent crime has a victim, and most of the time it’s an innocent victim. Those victims need a voice. Their suffering needs attention. Their losses and injuries are incalculable, and the fact that they are so much greater now than they once were in relatively recent memory is enough reason for me to devote much of my space to the plague of crime and plight of its victims. I hope perhaps you will look more closely at this issue as well.

  2. I appreciate that long discussion post. I have been a victim of burglary myself and assure you I don’t take crime and the plight of its victims lightly. What triggered my reaction to your column was its gloominess following excellent news about falling crime rates, and the use of the term “myth” in the title. I am concerned it gives readers a skewed impression of the facts. I also don’t think that crime is an under-reported topic. If anything ,the opposite is true. Americans are hardly aware that crime rates are at their lowest level in more than 30 years. I further think it is relevant to talk about the erosion of economic security, the increase in unemployment and the staggering increase in inequality, when discussing why today’s crime rates (in some categories) are still higher than they were in the 1960s.

  3. Fair enough, I always enjoy rigorous discussion! One puzzling aspect for you to investigate: The relevance of economic security, unemployment and such was originally blamed for the stark spikes in crime immediately following the 1960s during the 1970s — however, in the boom of the 1980s violent crime continued to increase, even well into the 1990s. I wish I had the magic wand answer to violent crime! What I mainly try to do is provoke different thinking, because there must be other relevant factors at work, too, which aren’t getting attention. No doubt a faltering criminal justice system is one of them — it needs to be overhauled more than the tax code. By the way, I agree that crime itself (especially in metro TV) is often over-reported. I meant crime analysis and crime policy was under-reported (mostly because it touches several hot potato political topics). Anyway, I appreciate where you’re coming from and I hope you can see that you and I are probably not as far apart on this issue as it may seem at first.

  4. Mr Kelley, please keep on doing what you do!!! Your writing is an awakening on many things. Also your article today (Dec.31, 2011)is a great idea! A new holiday !! Last week I had posted on Facebook : “Can someone come up with a new holday to help folks?” several folks thought it a wonderful idea!!! So, as you stated “Who can do it?”
    Thank you for all of your good honest writing. Lola Reynolds

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