Crime and Punishment in America: 1998

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 219
Thursday, September 24, 1998
by Morgan O. Reynolds

Introduction: The Recent Decline of Serious Crime

The overall rate of serious crime in the United States is at a 20-year low. The murder rate is lower than in the 1970s. In New York City, it is as low as in the 1960s. Not by coincidence, the likelihood that a criminal will be punished for a serious crime is higher today than it has been since the 1970s.

As in Figure I shows, crimes of violence (murder, rape, robbery and serious assaults) and burglary increased fourfold during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, serious crime reported to the police leveled off and then fell. For example, the FBI has found that the burglary rate is down one-third over the last 20 years. In 1996, violent crime and burglary fell 6 percent, led by record declines of 11 percent for murder and 8 percent for robbery. In 1997, violent crime fell another 5 percent and burglary fell 3 percent. Murder and robbery showed the greatest decline each down 9 percent.

Despite the falling crime rate, America continues to be burdened by an appalling amount of crime and by the fear that it spawns. A 1994 Associated Press poll found that 52 percent of men and 68 percent of women are personally afraid of becoming victims. A 1997 Gallup Poll shows the public ranks crime as the most important problem facing the country. A 1997 NBC/Wall Street Journal opinion poll found that 57 percent of the public rank crime and education as the top policy concerns. The Justice Department estimates the annual cost of crime to victims at $450 billion (including $424 billion in violent crime), or an annual cost of $4,500 per household. The fear of crime is well founded:

  • In 1996, an estimated 9.1 million Americans were victims of violent crimes.7
  • Over a lifetime, the average man in our society has an 89 percent probability of being a victim of an attempted crime of violence and the average woman has a 73 percent probability, although half of the attempts are not completed.
  • A murder is reported to the police every 27 minutes, a forcible rape every six minutes, a robbery every 59 seconds and an aggravated (serious) assault every 31 seconds.
  • A motor vehicle theft is reported to the police every 23 seconds, a burglary every 13 seconds and a larceny-theft every four seconds.

Clearly, there is much more to be done. Why has the crime rate been falling in recent years? What can we do to make it go lower?

Why The Serious Crime Rate Has Fallen

"Reason for the decline: the probability of going to prison has been rising and, once in prison, criminals are staying there longer."Most offenders are not mentally deranged. And most crimes are not irrational acts. Instead, criminal acts are freely committed by people who often compare the expected benefits to the expected costs. The reason we have so much crime is that, for many people, the benefits outweigh the costs. But in recent years the likelihood of going to prison for committing any type of major crime has increased, as has the amount of prison time served. In response to this development, people are committing fewer crimes. Since 1993:

  • The murder rate has dropped 30 percent, as the probability of going to prison for murder has risen 53 percent.
  • Rape has decreased 14 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 12 percent.
  • Robbery has decreased 29 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 28 percent.
  • Aggravated assault has decreased 14 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 27 percent.
  • Burglary has decreased 18 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 14 percent.

"The best overall measure of deterrence is expected punishment."
Moreover, once in prison criminals are staying there longer. Compared to the 1980s, the median prison sentence served by prisoners released in the 1990s has risen for every category of serious crime except aggravated assault.

The best overall measure of the potential cost to a criminal of committing crimes is "expected punishment." Roughly speaking, expected punishment is the number of days in prison a criminal can expect to serve per crime, as determined by the probabilities of being apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and going to prison, and the median sentence for each crime. Between 1980 and 1996, expected punishment:

  • for murder increased dramatically from 13 months to 37 months,
  • for rape nearly tripled to 119 days,
  • for robbery increased by half to 52 days,
  • for serious assault nearly doubled to 13 days,
  • for burglary doubled from 4 days to 8 days,
  • for larceny/theft increased significantly to 1.1 day and
  • for motor vehicle theft rose 70 percent to 2.1 days.

Evidence shows that potential criminals respond to incentives. Crime increases when expected punishment declines, and vice versa. Between 1950 and 1980, expected punishment for crimes of violence and burglary declined more-or-less continuously from an average of seven weeks for every serious crime committed to only 10 days an 80 percent drop. In response, the serious crime rate more than quadrupled during those years. In the 1980s, expected punishment began to increase, accompanied by the leveling off and then a decline in the serious crime rate. Between 1980 and 1996, expected punishment for serious crimes more than doubled, increasing from 10 to 22 prison days. Over the same period, the crime rate fell by one-third.

Figures II, III, Figures IV, V and VI show the relationship between each type of violent crime and burglary and its respective expected punishment since 1950. While far from perfect, the negative association between the amount of each crime and its expected punishment is apparent.

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