President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have routinely cited a two-year surge in homicide rates to justify tough-on-crime policies, including a return to harsh mandatory minimum sentencing and the re-militarization of local police forces.
The president invoked “American carnage” at his inauguration and when Sessions was sworn in in February, he said: “My judgement is this is not a blip and we’re seeing, I’m afraid, a longer-term trend of violent crime going up, which is not what we want in America.”
But a new report released Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, suggests that the spike in homicides in 2015 and 2016 may have been an aberration — not a trend.
According to the Brennan Center analysis, crime rates in 2017 are trending as low as at any time since 1990. The report suggests that the homicide rate in 2017 will decline by 2.5 percent from 2016, reversing what was politicized by some as a surging crime rate.
This is in keeping with what many criminologists have said from the get-go. “One or two years of crime spikes, largely in some cities, not all cities, is not a trend,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University. “There will always be natural fluctuations, especially in something like homicides, where you see short-term increases.”
When the FBI released its annual national crime data last September (reflecting figures from 2015), the surge in murders — up a whopping 11 percent from the previous year — grabbed headlines and generated talking points for candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign.
But after parsing the data, it became clear that the dramatic increase in homicides was driven by just a handful of outliers, like Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington D.C., which accounted for more than half of the homicide increase in the nation’s 50 biggest cities.
Some of those same cities are now leading the downward trend. If the data holds, the Brennan Center anticipates homicides will decline steeply in cities like Detroit (down 25.6 percent), Houston (down 20.5 percent), and New York (down 19.1 percent).
Even Chicago, one of the cities that has battled soaring homicides (nearly 500 murders since January), is expected to see a 2.5 percent decrease in murders overall.
Criminologists tend to consider data over longer periods, like 10 to 15 years, when identifying trends.
“We shouldn’t freak out when there are a few data points of years with what appear to be spikes,” said Phil Stinson, a criminology professor at Bowling Green State University. “Longitudinal data needs to be viewed for the trends, and not result in political crime control rhetoric based on review of one or two years of data out of context.”
While homicides did spike in 2015, and preliminary FBI data from the first half of 2016 indicates that violent crime continued to rise, those figures fail to convey the broader downward trend in homicides over the last two decades.
“No, the sky is not falling,” said Fox. “It’s clear why Donald Trump used that short-term spike in his campaign. Blaming rising crime rates on your competitors has always been a powerful way to win votes.”
But Fox fears that the president, having stoked fears of “American carnage,” will seize on any decline in homicides as evidence that his administration’s tough-on-crime approach is working (despite the fact that most criminologists agree that those policies are actually ineffective).
“In all likelihood, President Trump’s policies, plans, and pronouncements may actually make matters worse in terms of lawlessness and disorder,” Fox wrote in an op-ed for USA Today in March. “The disturbing irony is that, by virtue of his administration’s misguided initiatives, Trump’s exaggerated view of America’s crime problem may ultimately become prophesy.”
Correction Sept. 6, 2017, 1.12 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the university where James Alan Fox is a professor. He is a professor of criminology at Northeastern University.