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Despite Grim Media Reports, Crime Rates Are Actually Down In The U.S.


From daily news reports, it might seem that there is a crime spike in the U.S. In fact, the crime rate is down nationally, half what it was in 1990. That's according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York University. The authors say murder rates ticked up this year, though they remain near what the study calls all-time historic lows. As the year concludes, we've invited Matthew Friedman to help us sum up the state of crime in the U.S. He's an economist with the Brennan Center and one of the co-authors of the study. Welcome to the show.

MATTHEW FRIEDMAN: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: How much is crime down in 2015?

FRIEDMAN: So crime is down slightly in 2015 relative to the prior year. What we've found is that murder rates, though they have increased modestly nationally or in the 30 cities we studied, that overall crime have actually fallen by about 1.5 percent.

SHAPIRO: And that doesn't seem like very much, but I guess the larger headline is that crime rates have been decreasing in the U.S. and stay low.

FRIEDMAN: That's right. So in some years, crime might creep up in small amounts, but overall, crime has been decreasing on average for the past three decades.

SHAPIRO: There are some exceptions to this, most notably murder. You say in 2015, the murder rate went up more than 10 percent. What should we make of that figure?

FRIEDMAN: Certainly this is a significant finding, and it's something that needs to be addressed. However, what we found is that it was not broadly applicable and that there were certain areas that saw large increases in the number of murders and other areas where murder rates actually fell.

SHAPIRO: And what was the difference between those two areas when you compare the places with an increase in murder rate to the places with a decrease in the murder rate?

FRIEDMAN: Now, what we saw was that there was a high degree of correlation in the socioeconomic factors that determined that community.

SHAPIRO: So more poverty meant more murder.

FRIEDMAN: That's right. We saw high levels of unemployment. We saw low earnings. And what we saw was a lot of outmigration from these communities.

SHAPIRO: Talk about some of the other exceptions. For example, we're hearing that property crime is way up in California. Are there other deviations from this general trend of consistently low crime over a decade or two?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I think whenever we want to talk about crime, it's important that we talk about it at the local level rather than the national level because the determinants of crime are often very local in terms of socioeconomic conditions of the given community. So in California, certainly there are that are seeing increases in property crimes, be it larceny, be it burglary or be it motor vehicle theft. However, these are relatively recent phenomenons. 2014, nationally, marked all-time lows for most major types of crimes.

SHAPIRO: One theme in this report is that media coverage of crime does not necessarily give an accurate reflection of the data. How so?

FRIEDMAN: So I don't know that the media coverage isn't, but the public's perception of media coverage certainly gives a skewed image of what's going on with crime. What we find is that though we've seen a nearly three-decades-long decline in crime rates, public perception does not match that.

SHAPIRO: So what do you say to people who, even though they may actually be much safer, don't feel safer?

FRIEDMAN: I would encourage them to read our report.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That report from the Brennan Center for Justice on crime is authored by Matthew Friedman. Thank you for joining us.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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