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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #63, May 1994. It was written by Doug Henwood, editor and publisher. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.
Crime is hot again, reportedly having surpassed the economy in the public mind as problem number one, and the opportunist Clinton is all over the issue. In a February 15 Ohio speech to "members of the law enforcement community," the Effuser-in-Chief said the work of his audience "is probably more important to Americans today than it has ever been in the whole history of the country." The president concluded his speech with a multiply devious use of statistics (and some Bushian syntax as well): "And let me say, when I see what has happened in the crime area -- three times as many murders today as in 1960, three times as many violent crimes per police officer as there were 30 years ago, and three times as many births outside marriage -- where there has never been a marriage -- also related to the ultimate crime problem. I realize that a lot of these things are going to require the American people to get together and get something done.... [W]e're going to do our best, starting with the crime bill. We want you to help us. Thank you and God bless you."
There is no question that the U.S. is one of the most violent societies on earth, a heritage that goes back to the first European settlers who regarded the indigenous population as so much underbrush to be cleared. Our murder rates, for example, are anywhere from two to ten times those prevailing in Western Europe and Japan. But is the crime rate soaring, as Clinton and TV newsblasters say?
No. Take murder, which is not only the gravest crime, but the one for which the best statistics exist. Other crimes, like rape and robbery, are frequently not reported to police -- but the cops have a very good idea of the number of murders that occur. The number of murders per 100,000 population has doubled since 1960 -- the president conveniently forgot the population increase, no doubt to keep his nice threefold structure intact, and to exaggerate the problem -- but almost all that doubling happened in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1992, 9.3 people were murdered per 100,000 persons, a bit above early-1980s levels, but little changed from 1970s levels. Of course the rate is 9.3 too high, but the trend doesn't comport with the public hysteria.
Numbers covering crimes other than murder are far spongier. Police statistics, which show a near-doubling in the violent crime rate (i.e., rate per 100,000 persons, rather than raw numbers) may just be reflecting a greater propensity to call the cops. Also, not all police departments fill out the forms they file with the FBI with equal degrees of competence or care. A better method of studying crime trends is the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which it has carried out annually since 1973. The NCVS is a p