Crime and Punishment in America: 1999

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 229
Friday, October 01, 1999
by Morgan O. Reynolds

Introduction: The Recent Decline of Serious Crime

Figure I - Serious Crimes Reported to the Police%2C United States%2C Selected Years%2C 1950-98

"The serious crime rate in the United States fell to a 25-year low in 1998."

The overall rate of serious crime in the United States fell to a 25-year low in 1998. The murder rate - the number of murders per 100,000 population - dropped 8 percent from 1997 and finally slumped to the rates of the late 1960s, even falling below the average murder rate for the entire 20th century. Not only the murder rate, but also the actual number of murders reported in 1998 was the lowest in more than two decades. Other violent crimes and burglary also showed a decline in 1998. In addition, the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted annually by the Justice Department since 1973, found the lowest crime rates since the survey began.1

What happened in 1998 continued a trend first evidenced in the 1980s, a trend that accelerated in the '90s: there is less crime in the United States, as measured by both the crime rate and the actual number of crimes. Following a fourfold jump in crimes of violence-murder, rape, robbery and serious assaults-and burglary during the 1960s and 1970s, shown in Figure I, serious crime reported to the police stabilized and then fell. For example, the burglary rate is down nearly 40 percent over the last 20 years.2 In 1997 violent crime rates fell by 4 percent, led by a decline of 8 percent each in murder and robbery.3 Last year violent crime and burglary fell even more than in 1997, by 7 percent, led by an 11 percent decline in robbery and another 8 percent drop in murder.4 Burglary was down 7 percent and rape and aggravated assault dropped 5 percent each.

Not by coincidence, the likelihood that a criminal will be punished for a serious crime and the amount of time a criminal is likely to spend in prison are higher today than they have been since the 1970s.

"Crime costs $4,500 per household each year."

Still, despite the falling crime rate, America continues to be burdened by crime and by the fear that it spawns. A 1998 Gallup Poll shows the public ranks crime and violence as the most important problem facing the country although that ranking is eroding with the decline in crime.5 Closely related problems like moral and family decline, quality of education and drug abuse follow. 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.6 The fear of crime is well founded:

  • In 1998 an estimated 8.1 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.8
  • A murder is reported to the police every 29 minutes, a forcible rape every five minutes, a robbery every minute and an aggravated (serious) assault every 31 seconds.9
  • A motor vehicle theft is reported to the police every 23 seconds, a burglary every 13 seconds and a larceny-theft every four seconds.10

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?

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