Is crime going back up?
    And whose fault is that?

Yes. Killing the COPS program didn’t help any.

Earlier this year, when John Kerry pointed out that several Bush Administration’s actions and inactions, and in particular the defunding of the COPS program, would tend to make crime problems worse rather than better, and offered some high-quality proposals for crime reduction, the Republican response was as unconstructive as it usually is. Crime, we were told, had been going down, not up, on Mr. Bush’s watch: as if that discredited Kerry’s criticisms or made his proposals irrelevant. As James Q. Wilson keeps pointing out, crime is now down to a level about 50% higher than it was when the boomers were growing up. Is that something to be proud of?

There was some ill-natured fun at Mr. Kerry’s expense for saying that “crime” had increased under Bush when in fact it was only (only!) homicide that had increased. The total crime figures were still going down.

Well, not quite. In fact, it seems that, under GWB, crime, which had fallen sharply under Clinton, bottomed out and has started to come back. That’s according to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), conducted each year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). It turns out that 2001, continuing the trend, had lower crime than 2000. From 2001 to 2002 there was an additional drop, but a smaller drop than the previous trend would have predicted. And from 2002 to 2003 crime actually rose, roughly back to the 2001 level.

The published figures somewhat obscure those trends. The combination of smaller sample sizes from the NCVS (which, being an activity of the reality-based community, isn’t high on the Ashcroft priority list) and falling rates of crime, and especially violent crime, in the 1990s led the statisticians at BJS to worry that the year-to-year variation in the NCVS numbers might reflect more noise than trend. So BJS decided to report the figures as two-year moving averages. Thus 2002-2003 is just about flat compared to 2001-2002, so BJS reported “no change.” But in fact it seems that we had a bottom in 2002 and the beginning of a rise in 2003.

We’ll know more, of course, when the FBI Uniform Crime Report, which measures crimes reported to the police rather than victimizations as reported by the victims to surveyers, comes out later this year, and when the NCVS numbers for 2004 come out. The one straw in the wind is Fox Butterfield’s report that most big cities are seeing homicide go up again this year.

How much of this is the Bush Administration’s fault? It’s hard to say. Fewer cops — and the diversion of law enforcement resources to homeland security — would naturally tend to increase crime, as would falling real wages for the unskilled. (Unemployment turns out, according to Jeff Grogger’s work, to matter less than the wage rate.) But there’s no way to say that crime is higher now than it would have been had the Supreme Court picked a different President in 2000.

What is clear is that crime today is noticeably higher than it would have been had Clinton-era trends continued. So the claim that things have been going well on the crime front, and that therefore Mr. Bush’s policies have done no harm and Kerry’s good ideas — about, for example, reducing gang violence — therefore aren’t needed, turns out to be false.

See here for more information about current crime statistics.

Update: John Donohue estimates that Clinton-era policies cut crime by 6-8% and wonders why Bush decided to cut them back.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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