The Debunker: Is Crime on the Rise?

by Ken Jennings

October is Crime Prevention Month, says the National Crime Prevention Council, and would the nonprofit that brought you McGruff the Crime Dog lie to you about crime prevention? In honor of the occasion, we've decided to shine the hard light of truth on the underbelly of the criminal underworld. As a Jeopardy! superhero, Ken Jennings doesn't fight crime—just misinformation about crime. He'll be here all month debunking felonious falsehoods and misdemeanor myths.

The Debunker: Is Crime on the Rise?

If there's one thing Americans always agree on, despite the shifting winds of politics, it's that crime in this country is increasing. Gallup has been asking Americans since 1993 if they think crime is up over the past year; in every single year except for 2001, most respondents said yes, there's more crime lately. Pew Research's most recent numbers, from late 2016, show 57 percent of voters share this gloomy perspective on crime stats. Fully 78 percent of Trump voters believed crime numbers are getting worse, which could either be a cause or effect of their candidate's frequent insistence, on the campaign trail, that crime is up.

The Debunker

But pairing Gallup's poll numbers with actual stats reveals a glaring mismatch between perception and reality. Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers show both violent and property crime decreasing steadily and markedly since their all-time peaks in the 1990s. Violent crime is now down 77% since 1993 while property crime is down 69%. Why are voters so wrong about real crime trends? It's tempting to blame the occasional fear-mongering politician, but our consistent wrongness on this issue makes it seem that the cause must be more deeply rooted in human psychology. Surely the nature of modern media coverage is partially to blame. Urgent-sounding scare stories about local and national crime brings ratings. Headlines about "yet another small decline in crime rates!" are much less flashy. How do you televise a non-event?

When Trump spoke about rising crime rates at the Republican National Convention, his remarks were more specific. He allowed that there had been "decades of progress made in bringing down crime," but that this trend had lately been "reversed" by Obama administration policies. This version of the claim—that crime statistics are down in general, but have seen a recent uptick—is more defensible. FBI data did indeed show small year-to-year crime increases in 2015 and 2016, but it remains to be seen whether this is a new upward trend, or just continued statistical variation in the long downhill since 1993. The Brennan Center for Justice suggests it may be the latter, since they project a 1.8 percent decline in 2017, as well as a slight drop in violent crime driven by lower numbers out of Chicago and Washington lately. But one thing is certain: whether the crime "bounce" is real in the long term or not, Americans will continue to be convinced that the sky is falling. Apparently that's just how the human brain works.

QUICK QUIZ: According to the United Nations, the world's highest homicide rate by far is in what smallest country in Central America?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.