The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 16, 2011

Framing the crime debate by busting some big myths

March 16, 2011

If, like most Americans, you get most of your information about crime and public safety from the internet or TV, you likely believe (or at least have been told you should believe) the following things. Criminals come in two varieties. Type One is the brilliant loner psychopath who commits serial crimes and can’t be caught without the aid of large task forces, luck, and equally brilliant loner detectives.  Type Two is the ruthless soulless gang-banger who can be contained (but never defeated) only by armies of police. You may also believe that criminal investigators have enormous data systems at their fingertips that track virtually everything about all of us, that forensic examiners (CSIs) work in glass-walled offices full of aerodynamic chairs and can process complex crimes in minutes. Chances are you are disturbed by the epidemic kidnapping of innocent pixies from their homes in the dead of night. And, above all, you’re pretty sure that crime is getting worse, if not in your neighborhood, than certainly in the 'bad parts' of town, which are much larger than when you were a kid.

None of these things is true. If you are under 50, the streets are safer now than when you were a kid. There were about 3.5 crimes committed in 2009 for every 100 Americans. Last year’s crime rate was lower than 1969’s and every year in between. Property crime rates have not been this low since 1967. And, since crimes against women and minorities were seriously under-reported in the 1950s and 1960s, quite probably Americans have never been safer.

Meanwhile, convicted offenders don’t fit the stereotypes born of misinformation either.  They are far less educated than average Americans and have higher illiteracy rates, and their rates of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, mental health disorders, and drug and alcohol addiction are off the charts compared to those of mainstream Americans.  And while the super-villain is a myth, the challenges faced by prisoners create a cycle of crime and (expensive) punishment that harms us all.  And those omni-present gangs that commit most of the crime in America? They don’t. Outside of prisons, active gang membership is at most one million (out of a population of 300 million). And the most violent crimes are, overwhelmingly, committed against victims the perpetrators know.

The most overblown crime myth of all, though, is that strangers kidnap large numbers of children every year. FBI stats show that, in 2008, 155 children were abducted by strangers. And few kidnappers or criminals of any kind were brought to justice thanks to super cop forensics. Yes, investigative uses of technology get better every year, but in the 17 years since the national DNA database was established at the FBI to investigate violent crimes, it has been used in 131,000 cases out of 20 million violent crimes. That’s less than 1 in 100.

The problem with all these myths is that they point policymakers in the wrong direction. Conversely, the straight facts would do the reverse. Since crime is way down, should America spend less on prisons and reap a crime-dividend? Since drugs bring many more people to prison than gangs, shouldn’t we devote more effort to drug treatment and less to gang suppression? Since many times more children are exploited by relatives than by strangers, isn’t detecting and preventing abuse better than giant highway signs and text alerts announcing abductions?

There are serious crime and justice issues in the United States. Despite the dramatic reductions in crime over the last two decades, crime in the United States remains far higher than the rest of the western world. If we want to curb crime and boost public safety, these die-hard myths fed by misinformation just get in the way.  

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Comments

Hey John,
How do you know your "myths" are widely believed.
Or, more generally, How do know WHAT people think about crime?
Your Friend

Great job John - I'd love to see you address some of the other myths and misconceptions about crime on a regular basis!

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