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Q&A

Violent Crime: A Conversation

Is it rising or declining? Does it matter?

Over the last two years, there has been a great deal of arguing about the prevalence of violent crime in America and how the national crime rate is changing. The president and attorney general say it’s soaring. Criminal justice reformers aren’t so certain. A Who’s Who of crime researchers and experts gathered to tackle the question at the Smart on Crime Innovations conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City last month.

The panelists were Thomas Abt of Harvard’s Center for International Development, Adam Gelb of Pew’s public safety performance project, the Brennan Center for Justice’s Ames Grawert, The Vera Institute’s Jim Parsons and John Jay professor David Kennedy. The Marshall Project’s Tom Meagher moderated the discussion.

These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the conversation in its entirety here.

Thomas Abt: Just to start us off, in 2016, the last year for which we have the official UCR [FBI Uniform Crime Reporting] data, there were 17,250 homicides. That's up 8.6 percent from 2015 and that comes on the heels of a 12.1 percent increase in 2014-2015. That adds up to about a 21 or 22 percent increase in homicide over two years, which is the largest two-year increase in 25 years. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the rates of violent crime here in the United States right now are about half of what they were at their peak in the early 90's.

With regard to violent crime, there were about 1.2 million violent crimes in 2016. That was up 4 percent from the previous year, up 4 percent from the previous year from that. So we're a total two-year increase of about 8 percent. Again, not just the rate of homicide, but the rates of violent crime are about half of what they were from their high in 1991 or 1992.

The big question that we're here to discuss is, “Is this a trend?” I think the only serious answer is we don't know yet. We can't be certain. Murder began to rise precipitously in the early 1960s. It ultimately peaked in the early '90s, and then it dropped more or less steadily for two-and-a-half decades.

In some ways this question of, “Is this a trend?” is somewhat besides the point because in some ways it doesn't matter. The rates were already far too high, much higher than in other developed nations and especially too high for poor communities of color. One thing I want to get across is that this issue of violent crime, of homicide, is an important issue, literally a matter of life or death, whether or not there is a trend going on. And too often this issue is considered a political football that's carried back and forth.

Criminal justice reformers sometimes want to downplay the issue because they worry that this is going to impact the momentum for other criminal justice reforms. Other people want to exaggerate the issue, and so fear and division link this to other issues like a broader cultural war, or tough on crime, or law and order agenda about crime and immigration.

“The rates were already far too high, much higher than in other developed nations and especially too high for poor communities of color.” — Thomas Abt

It's very important that there is a progressive criminal justice response to the issue of violent crime. It disproportionately impacts the constituencies that we reformers claim we care about, which is poor communities of color. The violence in these communities causes intense suffering and if we fail to address that suffering, it's a real disservice to them.

Adam Gelb: Put yourself back 10, 12 years. 2005, 2006 we had two consecutive years of increase in violent crime. And at the time there were dire warnings that we were headed back to the peaks of the early '90s. That did not come to pass, which was terrific and I'm not going to try to prognosticate here. But there are a number of reasons to think that we might be seeing a leveling off, maybe even a decrease.

But in 2007, so exactly 10 years ago, after these two consecutive increases, the attorney general at the time, Alberto Gonzales, issued a statement that I think captures pretty darn well exactly where we are today after two years of consecutive increases. I'm going to read it to you so I get it right.

In a speech, he said, "In general it doesn't appear that the current data reveal nationwide trends. Rather they show local increases in certain communities. Each community is facing different circumstances and in many places violent crime continues to decrease."

That sounds right for about what we're looking at today. So it's fascinating to see the differences. A great example of “where you stand depends on where you sit,” the reaction of the current administration and others to what we're seeing now.

These are situations that deserve a response, and they deserve a response that's backed by evidence about what actually works to reduce violence.

Jim Parsons: Yes, there's been this average aggregate increase, but in 68 percent of places, either the crime rate stayed the same or it went down. So if you're thinking about making national policy, about making national policy decisions based on these crime rates, and if you have the theory that being more punitive or reacting to increasing crime is going to improve the situation, then that would not apply in two-thirds of places. You'll be making a decision and trying to fix something that was not broken—or at least the trend suggests that things are not getting more dangerous—in two-thirds of places.

Looking at these average changes is potentially going to drive policy in the wrong way, when what we've seen over the last two, three decades is that policy choices are having the effect of reducing crime. What we're doing is largely working.

We haven't solved the problem but we're doing a lot of things right, and there's a danger of undoing a lot of that progress if we don't look at the nuance of these data.Most places roughly stay the same. Sixty-two percent of places we looked at had stable, fairly stable homicide rates. 16 percent experienced decreases and 22 percent experienced increases.

Some of these places that are experiencing increases, they are large cities and naturally driving the national average. But still, if you do the math, in this case 78 percent had stable or decreasing homicide rates, more than three-quarters of the jurisdictions that we looked at.

David Kennedy: I haven't heard, and I think we're all kind of sitting here thinking, that nobody has said anything that anybody reasonably thoughtful about these issues would disagree with so far. I may break that trend. We'll see.

The national conversation about this has focused on this issue of movement and trend or no trend. We should not think that that's the issue. The issue is the steady state and the baseline, because in the midst of this long national crime decline, which is real, one of the things that we're really good at in criminal justice is counting bodies. So these are real numbers, they are to be relied upon.

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They show both this long national decline, which is to be celebrated, and what we also all know is that in all big cities ... and in lots and lots and lots of other cities there are particular communities that have—while they've come down usually from the worst years of the 1990s—people who are living in unconscionable conditions of persistent violence, trauma, and fear. We as a nation have taken that as normal and so when things change, we focus on the change. The scandal is what's normal. And in this moment where we're debating these small changes and the national homicide rate had come down to between four and five per 100,000 and is now edging back up toward five. There are communities all over the country where especially young men of color are experiencing persistent homicide rates of over 500 per 100,000 year after year after year after year.

That's the story, and everything we know about the increases are that they are in those same places, those same communities, those same people. This is not reaching out into different demographics. It's not reaching out into different communities. It's not reaching out into places that have not experienced this problem. It’s worsening among the people and places that have been enduring this forever.

“There are particular communities that have people who are living in unconscionable conditions of persistent violence, trauma, and fear. We as a nation have taken that as normal and so when things change, we focus on the change. The scandal is what's normal.” — David Kennedy

So it's an important question about what's driving the changes, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that that is the issue. That is not the issue. The issue is we have been living with this forever and we have not acted effectively around it. And that thing we have been living with forever is getting somewhat worse in some places...

We don't know what's going on. We don't know what's behind it. We have no understanding of the range of what's driving the incidents, whether that mix is different in different places. It's ridiculous. And we know that a lot of what we're getting is wrong. I mean, we know it's wrong. We know for a fact now the important reality that this kind of homicide is driven overwhelmingly by groups and networks of high-rate offenders. We know that now.

When there were a couple of Ebola patients who might have been coming into the country, there was an entire apparatus of public health monitoring and surveillance, and clinical intervention, and epidemiology, and emergency planning, and the mobilization of treatment and isolation protocols, and stockpiling of pharmaceuticals. And of course all of that was linked to a continuous program of deep research in virology. The country hasn't done anything of the kind on violent crime. And if you do this work or you cover this work, you know that the cities affected are entirely on their own. They have gotten essentially no help from the states that they're in. There is no thoughtful or measured or even framed national strategy about dealing with this.

The way we're dealing with this is debating on the basis of poor information whether it's a trend or not. We're not doing anything...

We are not paying any meaningful attention to the small but important portfolio of interventions that we know are effective around these issues. And just to say it again, the cities are floundering, the states are missing in action, and the federal government is effectively missing in action. And we operationally can do a better job of this. Morally and socially and politically we should consider an obligation to do a better job than this, and instead we get these panels.

Though the panelists hewed closely to the question of how to examine and interpret federal crime statistics, in other venues several of them have offered visions for specific policing strategies to deal with violent crime. Kennedy is the founder of the National Network for Safe Communities, which works with law enforcement agencies to identify and target those most likely to be involved in violent crime, offering them support to abandon violence and informing them that otherwise prosecution is imminent. Abt co-wrote a survey of 1,400 anti-violence studies and found similarly that effective policing focuses “on the small numbers of places, people and behaviors that disproportionately drive the problem”.

Abt: Candidly, I want to do something right now that I almost never do, which is I want to pick a fight. I respect greatly, and value the colleagueship of Pew, Vera, the Brennan Center, and this has been a very respectful conversation.

“You know who speaks to violent crime? It will be law and order types, like Trump and Sessions. That's a real problem.” — Thomas Abt

But I do essentially hear three statements downplaying a massive increase in homicide, and I think that that's a problem. You can slice and dice this data in many different ways. You can say, look at the less populous cities, when in fact more people live in the biggest cities. If you look at all of the cities for 100,000 people and up, more than half of those cities have experienced an increase in violent crime last year. 59 percent of them experienced an increase over the two years. If you look at just the top 100 largest cities, because this crime spike is more pronounced in the larger cities, it's significantly more than half.

I have to say that if progressives won't address violent crime squarely, if they will only change the subject, if they will only minimize, if they will only say, ‘It's complicated.’ Well then you know who speaks to violent crime? It will be law and order types, like Trump and Sessions. That's a real problem, and we owe it to the people that we fight for as progressives. I consider myself a committed progressive. We owe it to those people to generate an affirmative policy response aimed directly at homicide and violent crime. That needs to be elevated to the top of our agenda.

The irony is we have a great story to tell. The leaders in this field are progressives and the other things that we do, the other reforms that we are pushing as progressives, are consistent with crime reduction. We don't have to change the subject on this issue, and we don't have to minimize. We don't have to say, ‘It's complicated,’ although it certainly is complicated.

But Jesus, 22 percent over two years, 3,000 more homicides per year in 2016 than 2014. I don't think it's that complicated.

Parsons: I would never say that what we're seeing in the data is not a problem. I would never say that it's not something we need to do something about. I think that the problem is that it can easily be characterized in ways that the response is a broad brush response, which is applied nationally using the same approach.

And when we say it's complicated, the fact is that it's playing out differently from place to place and the response needs to be different. And as David mentioned, where we are seeing big crime spikes, in inner city areas, we know there are things we should be doing and that we shouldn't minimize those responses. But we need to guard against a knee-jerk reaction that is based on misinterpretation of data, and because there aren't organizations that provide any counterbalance to this potential interpretation that we're in the middle of a crime wave, and the American carnage and everything else that we've had.

“We need to guard against a knee-jerk reaction that is based on misinterpretation of data.” — Jim Parsons

Ames Grawert: I can speak to what I think are some of the origins of this debate. I don't disagree with anything that Thomas said, and I don't think most of us do. I don't think anyone here wants to minimize any problem that exists with violent crime. I think we all agree that there are some solutions needed.

I think the problem is this all started, I think, about a year ago when we saw now the president of the United States say at the Republican National Convention that quoted something like, a decade of progress worth of controlling violent crime as being reversed by the Obama administration. Any way you cut it with that data, it's just not true. To have violent crime go from where it is today to where it was in 1991, homicides in New York would have to increase by a rate of more than 300 percent, and that's simply not going to happen.

I think when you hear lies like that and you hear just blatant misstatements, it galvanizes so many of us. I know it galvanized me and my colleagues to be the countervailing voice in the room and say, “That's not true.”

The problem is in that sort of contrarian space, it can suck the oxygen out of the room for the middle point, which is there's no crime wave, decades of progress aren't being reversed. But there are some spots where we need affirmative answers. Let's figure out those answers.

“To have violent crime go from where it is today to where it was in 1991, homicides in New York would have to increase by a rate of more than 300 percent.” — Ames Grawert

Abt: I'll just say, I think that that's a good point. And I have to say, I don't really know the answer as a matter of politics. Remember that homicide for young men is the third-leading cause of death. For Latino young men it's the second-leading cause of death. For African American young men it's the first-leading cause of death, and it causes more deaths than the entire other top nine causes of death. That is striking.

If that doesn't mobilize you, note that for every homicide the conservative estimates are that every homicide costs us collectively—lest we think that this is just somebody else's problem—about $7 million, that's the low estimate. The high estimate is about 17, and I'm only giving you the credible estimates, the ones that are in peer review Journals.

So we have to elevate this issue in a way, but in a way that avoids this fear mongering, because I do think we need to have countervailing messages when people say, “Oh this is American carnage.” It isn't. “This is a nationwide crime wave.” It isn't. It's also not about immigration. It's also, as far as we can tell, not about opioids or drugs. We need to get under the hood as to what this is, and as David said, use some of the strategies that have already been demonstrated to work.