NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Punishment Up, Crime Down In America

October 18, 1999

Serious crime in the United States fell from 1997 to 1998 -- whether measured as the rate of crimes per capita or in absolute terms, according to "Crime and Punishment in America: 1999," a new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis.

According to the report by Morgan O. Reynolds, an economist and senior fellow at the NCPA:

  • The overall rate of serious crime fell to a 25-year low.
  • The murder rate dropped by 8 percent from 1997 and finally slumped to the rates of the late 1960s, even falling below the average murder rate during this entire century.
  • The rates for rape and aggravated assault fell by 5 percent each, for robbery by 11 percent and for burglary by 7 percent.
  • The actual number of murders reported in 1998 was the lowest in more than two decades.

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.

In 1997, the latest year for which prison data are available, the probability of going to prison for murder rose 13 percent from 1996, for rape 1 percent, for robbery 7 percent and for aggravated assault 11 percent; the probability of going to prison for burglary remained the same.

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 typical criminal can expect to serve per crime, as determined by the probabilities of being apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and going to prison, and the median months served for each crime.

In 1997 expected punishment continued to increase, rising 20 percent for aggravated assault, 13 percent each for murder and robbery and negligible amounts for rape and burglary compared to 1996.

Source: Morgan O. Reynolds, "Crime and Punishment in America: 1999," NCPA Policy Report No. 229, October 1999, National Center for Policy Analysis, 12655 N. Central Expwy., Suite 720, Dallas, Texas 75251, (972) 386-6272.

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