June 16, 2006

June 16, 2006 | Commentary on Crime

Rising crime

Last Monday, the FBI released its preliminary annual Uniform Crime Report for 2005. The numbers indicate crime may be on the rise. For example, the total number of murders in America increased by 4.8 percent. However, before the call goes out for the federal government to spend more on traditional state and local crime-fighting responsibilities, we need to put these numbers in perspective.

First, these new FBI estimates are crime totals and do not adjust for population growth. Obviously, more people likely would mean more crime. The final Uniform Crime Report for 2005, due out this fall, will adjust for population growth, which should reduce the numbers somewhat.

Second, we need to make sure this small increase in total murders represents a long-term trend, not an aberration. From 2002 to 2003, the murder rate increased from 5.6 incidents per 100,000 residents to 5.7. Yet, the murder rate in 2005 dropped to 5.5 incidents per 100,000 residents.

Third, numerous factors determine crime rates, many of which are beyond government control. Before we know more, we should stick with proven strategies. Pouring federal money into local law enforcement is a proven loser.

What does work? Creative approaches by local police chiefs, such as problem-oriented policing, in which local police devote resources to areas where crime occurs frequently.

Another winning strategy: putting violent criminals behind bars and keeping them there. In one study, researchers looked at 64 years of crime data, ending in 1994, and determined that a 10 percent increase in total prison population is associated with a 13-percent decrease in homicide, after controlling for socioeconomic factors.

This doesn't mean we should throw every possible violator in prison. Prison space is a scarce resource and should be treated as such. But it does mean incarcerating our most serious offenders first.

It's certainly not good news that the total number of murders in America went up. But until we know more, we should resist the urge to overreact. Just as the punishment must fit the crime, the crime-fighting strategy must fit the situation.

David Muhlhausen is a senior research analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

Related Issues: Crime

First appeared in the National Review