Crime and Punishment in Texas in the 1990s

Studies | Crime

No. 237
Thursday, November 30, 2000
by Morgan O. Reynolds


Introduction: Despite Relief, a Problem Remains

Figure I - Decline in Index Crime Rates%2C 1990-99 Texas and United States

After The Simpsons ran its "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episode, baby Maggie was revealed as the assailant. Worried question: "They don't execute babies, do they?" Answer: "No. Well...maybe in Texas."

"The overall crime rate in Texas now is the lowest since 1974."

Such is the harsh image of Texas justice, whether deserved or not. True, Texas executes more murderers than any other state - 35 last year - but the furor over Texas' resolute use of the death penalty for capital crimes sometimes obscures the rapidly falling general crime rate in the state over the past decade.

During the 1980s Texas suffered an increase of 29 percent in the rate of serious crime, while the rate in the United States as a whole declined by 4 percent. But the outlook for law-abiding citizens in Texas improved dramatically during the 1990s:1

  • After peaking at 8 index crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft and motor vehicle theft) for every 100 people in 1988 (42 percent above the national average), the Texas crime rate has plummeted by 37 percent, to five crimes for every 100 people in 1999 (still 17 percent above the national average).2
  • The overall crime rate in Texas now is the lowest since 1974.
  • The murder rate is the lowest since the 1950s.
  • The burglary rate is the lowest since 1968.

Crime has fallen sharply in the big cities, too:

  • Index crime between 1991 and 1998 fell 39 percent in Dallas, 36 percent in Houston and 44 percent in San Antonio.
  • Violent index crime (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) fell 44 percent in Dallas, 32 percent in Houston and 44 percent in Dallas compared to 33 percent across the state and 30 percent in the nation.
  • In 1999 alone, murders declined by 24 percent in Dallas and 11 percent in the largest Texas cities, compared to 8 percent nationally.

As Figure I shows, Texas crime rates declined more rapidly than U.S. crime rates between 1990 and 1999:

  • Overall index crime rates in Texas were 34 percent higher than national rates in 1990 but only 17 percent higher by 1999.
  • Each index crime except aggravated assault declined more sharply in Texas than in the nation, led by a decline in the murder rate from 50 percent above the national average in 1990 to 5 percent higher in 1999.
Table I - U.S. and Texas Index Crimes per 100%2C000 Population%2C 1991 and 1999

The overall rate of violence in Texas is 6 percent above the national rate; Texas has a lower robbery rate, but higher rates of murder, rape and assault. The Texas property crime rate is 19 percent higher than the national rate.

"Over the past decade, the Texas crime rate fell by more than one-third."

The declines in crime rates are not mere statistical illusions. They reflect very real improvements in public safety. The number of murders reported is generally conceded to be accurate. So is the number of motor vehicle thefts because cars and trucks are relatively expensive, insured items. During the 1990s these two "best-reported crimes" fell by the largest amounts, murder by 57 percent and motor vehicle theft by 50 percent. Further, although many crimes are not reported to the police, the National Crime Victimization Survey shows that the reporting rates have been gradually creeping upward (up 20 percent since 1973), and better performance by the criminal justice system has stimulated even more reporting. Thus the decline in total crime, considering both crimes reported to the police and those not reported, may actually be even greater than the statistics indicate.

"The overall Texas crime rate is still 17 percent above the national average."

Texans can take some satisfaction in this achievement. Compared to 1991 crime rates (even higher than 1990 rates), the lower rates mean that 1,800 fewer Texans will be murdered this year and 535,000 fewer violent crimes and crimes against property will be reported to the police.

Not that the battle against crime has been completely won:

  • Every year, more than 220,000 Texans are victims of violent crimes, of which only 112,000 are reported to the police.
  • About 2 million Texans each year are victims of property crimes: burglary, larceny/theft and arson.
  • On an average day in Texas, 4 murders, 122 rapes, 80 robberies and 206 life-threatening assaults are reported to the police.
  • A car is stolen every 5 minutes and a burglary is committed every 2.7 minutes.3
  • Although the state's index crime rate was below the national average in 1975, today it is 17 percent above the national average, as shown in Table I.
  • The state's murder rate was still the 18th highest in the nation in 1998.
  • Based on six weighted crime rates, Texas was rated the 17th most dangerous state in which to live in 2000 by Morgan Quitno Press of Lawrence, Kan., a company specializing in state and statistical rankings; this was a substantial improvement from sixth most dangerous in 1993.4

More than one of every three crimes is committed by criminals already under government "supervision" - either on probation, parole or pretrial release-and Texas has more probationers and parolees under supervision outside prisons than any other state.5


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