Tag Archives: crime

“Facts Don’t Win Elections”

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton recently reflected upon the disconnect between crime statistics and popular beliefs about violent crime.

The disconnect between actual rates of violent crime and the public perception of the rates of violent crime is astonishing. In 2014, 63% of Americans believed that violent crime was going up when, in reality, it’s been dropping steadily for 25 years and has dropped 20% in the last 8 years. In fact, a majority of Americans have believed that every year since 2003.

There are several explanations that can be offered for that disconnect, but undoubtedly, the media bears considerable responsibility. Not only do news sources–particularly television news–focus on crime (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but the number of movies and popular television shows that feature crime fighters of one sort or another (everything from the multiple versions of Law and Order and NCIS to lawyer shows to cops and robbers) sometimes seem to dwarf other kinds of subject matter.

It isn’t just that the media report so prominently on local crime incidents. In the age of globalization, we see reports from all around the world. Did a bomb go off in a London subway? It makes the evening news. Was someone murdered in Paris? It makes the evening news. The impression is that danger lurks everywhere.

It isn’t all that innocent, however, as Brayton points out.

But I think there’s one more element to this that is important. One of our two major political parties has a huge interest in convincing people that violent crime is getting worse instead of better. And one of the most influential interest groups for that party, the NRA, has become little more than the marketing wing of the gun industry. And surveys also show that support for gun rights goes up as fear of crime goes up. So there is a huge incentive to lie to people and convince them that crime is going up. And since, as noted above, most people have no experience with actual violent crime, the media images and political messages that focus on violent crime are more likely to be effective.

Thus you get what happened at the RNC, where they were selling not only the idea of a dystopic future but a dystopic present. They presented America as a hellscape of violence that simply does not exist, despite some high-profile situations that got enormous media saturation. It has never been safer to be an American. It’s never been safer to be a cop in America. Those are the facts. But facts don’t win elections.

Facts. Evidence. Reality. Next to a good story, I guess they don’t stand much of a chance.

If We Really Followed the Money…..

I recently came across a citation to a fascinating report from the White House Council of Economic Advisors. (Yes, I know I’m a nerd and my reading habits are embarrassingly dorkish…). But it was interesting!

When asked to study the cost/benefit of various crime reduction policies,  the Council responded with data like this:

The authors consider a few ways of reducing crime. They forecast that hiking the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $12 would reduce crime by 3 percent to 5 percent, as fewer people would be forced to turn to illegal activity to make ends meet. By contrast, spending an additional $10 billion on incarceration — a massive increase — would reduce crime by only 1 percent to 4 percent, according to the report…

They also calculated the true social costs of crime. It totaled almost $308 billion in 2014. So a simple move like raising the minimum wage to $12 doesn’t only reduce crime by 3%-5%, it would save $8 to $17 billion a year.

The problem, of course, is that in the United States, policies are not evaluated and/or implemented based upon any sort of cost/benefit analysis. A continuing influence of this country’s early Calvinism is our predictable analysis of even the most prosaic policies as “moral” issues, requiring determination of “deservedness.” We don’t ask, what would work best? Instead, we ask “How do we avoid rewarding people for behaviors (real or imagined) of which we disapprove?”

It comes back to a conviction–evidently baked into American DNA–that if people are poor, they must be morally defective. Lazy. Unmotivated. Lacking “middle-class values.”

And all of the data that demonstrates otherwise is simply disregarded as the product of wooly-headed liberals.

If we made policy based upon evidence, we would add the projected reduction in crime to the myriad other benefits of raising the minimum wage.

  • Increased buying power and consumer demand (as a result of more people having more disposable income) would drive improved economic performance.
  • According to research, easing the incredible stress experienced by so many low-wage families would reduce familial dysfunctions and even domestic violence.
  • Ameliorating the fiscal pressures that cause poor families to move more often would reduce the disruptive effect on the education of children who frequently change schools.
  • And guess what? We would dramatically reduce the current levels of government outlays for social programs. 

Someone trying to support a family on today’s minimum wage does not even reach the federal government’s poverty line for a family of three. They would make about $14,500 per year. The federal poverty line for a family of three is $18,123. If the minimum wage were increased to a level at which families could sustain themselves, fewer people would end up needing government assistance for housing, food, or health care. This would be a significant benefit to taxpayers and to states’ budgets.

So why is it so hard to raise the minimum wage?

One intriguing theory, from the Economic Policy Institute, is that raising the minimum wage may be seen as a women’s issue.

While increasing the minimum wage would have a sizable impact on both men and women, it would disproportionately affect women. That women comprise 54.5 percent of workers who would be affected by a potential minimum-wage increase makes it a women’s issue… The share of those affected who are women varies somewhat by state, from a low of 49.3 percent in California to a high of 64.4 percent in Mississippi (according to the authors’ analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata). California and Nevada, also at 49.3 percent, are the only states where women do not constitute the majority of those who would benefit.

I hate to be a cynic, but maybe the disproportionate benefit to women is why we have so much trouble getting it done.

Misogyny? Or just our usual penchant for stubborn ideology over evidence?

Crime Control: We Need to Learn from the Big Apple

The New York Times recently reported on the state of criminal activity in the Big Apple.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that a city his opponents once said would grow more dangerous under his watch had, in fact, become even safer.

Robberies, considered the most telling indicator of street crime, are down 14 percent across New York City from last year. Grand larcenies — including the thefts of Apple devices that officials said drove an overall crime increase two years ago — are also down, by roughly 3 percent.

And after a record-low 335 homicides in 2013, the city has seen 290 killings in the first 11 months of this year, a number unheard-of two decades ago.

Indianapolis, by contrast, has had 130 murders through November 25th. In the 2010 census, Indianapolis had approximately 830, 000 residents; New York City has an estimated 8,500,000. In other words, we have not quite a tenth of the population, but nearly half as many homicides.

According to official reports, it isn’t just New York (although the Big Apple is among the leaders in the decline.) Homicide rates in cities all across the country are falling.

Ours aren’t. The question is: why?


Mayor Ballard–TMI!

For a Mayor whose administration has been uncommonly secretive about information his constituents have a right to know, Mayor Ballard seems totally unaware of the damage that can come from TMI–too much information.

Ballard has been very defensive about his administration’s inability to reduce our horrendous crime rate (which is substantially higher than New York’s). That’s understandable. He has also insisted that the problem won’t be solved simply by adding more police, although he has conceded that IMPD is far, far below optimal staffing. A couple of days ago, he announced–with considerable fanfare–that the officers we do have will be deployed differently; that more police will be assigned to neighborhoods experiencing the most crime.

Okay. Maybe that helps, maybe not, but certainly reasonable.

The problem is, he identified those neighborhoods.

If you think about this for a minute–something I’m fairly confident no one in the Mayor’s office did–you can see the problem. Each area identified has neighborhood organizations, urban pioneers, nonprofits and others working hard to improve these communities and trying to encourage people to move in and become part of the area’s revitalization struggle. The administration has effectively undercut those efforts, labeling their neighborhoods as places people shouldn’t want to live.

The city might just as well have posted “Danger, Keep Out” signs.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, folks living in other neighborhoods–areas with problems that aren’t “the worst”–look at the Mayor’s deployment strategy and worry that the already thin police presence in our neighborhoods will decline, inviting a corresponding rise in crime. (If I were a burglar, I’d certainly consult that map–and confine my nighttime activities to non-targeted areas.)

The strategy of deploying resources to areas that most need those resources is fine. Announcing the specifics is bone-headed.

And this from an Administration that ignores legitimate Freedom of Information requests and refuses to share truly public information with the public.



Crime and (Kneejerk) Punishment

How many times have discussions on this blog–as well as others–focused on stupid laws? The drug war (especially marijuana prohibition) is one of the biggest offenders, having ruined countless lives, but everyone has his or her favorite example.

The litany is familiar: who thinks up these rules? Who thought X was a good idea? Why didn’t anyone consider the adverse consequences?

Well, if we want to know what prompts lawmakers to suggest and pass costly measures ranging from irrelevant to unworkable, we have a perfect case study unfolding right before our eyes in Indianapolis.

Our City is experiencing a serious crime wave. There are a number of explanations–and a lot of excuses–for our public safety problem, ranging from insufficient police presence to poverty to administrative incompetence, and it’s likely that all are implicated, along with social pathologies that resist easy answers.

So what are our intrepid lawmakers suggesting? Longer prison sentences for the people we manage to arrest! A quick fix. Easy to understand measures that will allow said lawmakers to boast that they “did something.”

Of course, the “something” they propose to do flies in the face of years of criminal justice research.

Here’s the thing: when we are trying to deter intentional crime (i.e., not a “crime of passion” committed by someone who acted out of a lack of self-control or often, lack of cognitive capacity), research confirms that what is effective is not the severity of the potential punishment–it is the certainty of that punishment. If an individual is considering engaging in a criminal act for which the punishment is 30 years in prison but the chances of getting caught are less than 5%, he’s very likely to go for it. If, on the other hand, the punishment is only 5 years but the likelihood of being caught is 95%, he’s much more likely to rethink it.

As the odds of being punished grow, so does the deterrence.

If we respond to the current crime wave by increasing the severity of punishment, our prison system will just cost taxpayers even more than it does now.

As H.L. Mencken memorably noted, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.