This piece is co-written by Jim Lyons, Senior Editor at the Brennan Center.
It's that time of year again. No, not carving pumpkins, watching college football, or biting nails over the Presidential election. This month is when the government releases the two most widely cited annual reports about crime.
This month, DOJ released its annual survey of American households. The FBI will release its Uniform Crime Report this week. The basic difference is that the DOJ study surveys households, which includes people who did not report crimes to the police. The FBI report relies on police data and measures more serious crime.
In the typical fashion, the press misinterpreted the DOJ study to sow unnecessary fear. It has painted a misleading portrait of violent crime, which only makes it harder to curtail the nation's obsession with cramming its prisons with even more inmates.
Let's start with the big picture. The rate of violent crime has steadily decreased by 72 percent since 1993, according to the DOJ. According to the FBI's 2010 data, violent crime is down nearly 14 percent since 2001. As any city-dweller knows, the streets are much safer than they were 10 or 20 years ago. There were 731 robberies in New York City's Central Park in 1981, while there only 18 last year.
Unfortunately, there is no advantage in reporting that the crime rate is stable or continuing to decline. It is far catchier to use headlines such as, "Report: Violent Crime Rises Sharply, Reversing Trend," (USA Today); "U.S. Violent Crime Up for First Time In Years," (CNN.com); "Violent Crime Spiked 17% Last Year: DOJ," (Marketwatch); "Report: Violent Crime Rates Rose Nationwide in 2011," (The Daily Caller); and, because of its racial overtones, the most incendiary of the lot, "Obama DOJ: Growth in Violent Crimes Against Whites," (Judicial Watch).
Readers could be forgiven for concluding that the number of murders, rapes, and robberies grew by nearly 20 percent last year. That's even the headline on DOJ's press release: "Violent Crime Up 17 Percent." The only problem is that what the DOJ survey classifies as "violent crime" is not what most people would suppose. DOJ's definition includes rapes, robberies, and assaults, but explicitly excludes murder. It defines "simple assaults" as "attacks without a weapon resulting in either no injury or minor injury." In other words, if someone yelled at you over a parking space or spit on you, you were a victim of an assault.
An increase in assaults is what "accounted for all of the increase in total violence," according to the DOJ study. In other words, Americans may be becoming more boorish, but they were no more violent in 2011 than they were the year before. Even the DOJ's reported 17 percent increase is of little consequence: "The actual change in the rate between 2010 and 2011 (3.3 per 1,100) is below the average annual change in rates for the past two decades (4.3 per 1,000)." In other words, the percentage increase is high because the rate is so low in the first place. Even a relatively small change will appear as a large shift.
The FBI's preliminary data, cited in the DOJ report, actually finds a 4 percent decline in violent crime over the last year. The FBI uses a more traditional definition of violent crime - one that includes murders and excludes simple assaults. Monday's final report should crystallize this decline.
Sensational crime reporting is a venerable journalistic tradition. But the interested public and policymakers should probe more deeply to learn what is behind the headlines. Yet, too often, headlines become the basis for policy. This phenomenon has led the U.S. to incarcerate more of its population than any country. It has also resulted in politicians cowering away from efforts to end this irrationality out of fear of being tagged as "soft on crime" (just ask Michael Dukakis). When it comes to criminal justice, it is well past time to set aside superficial understanding and emotionalism and replace them with cold, hard facts.