The violent crime rate in the U.S. hit a high in approximately 1990 and then began to taper off. That trend continued until 2015 and 2016, when the violent crime rate rose slightly. In 2017 and 2018, however, the violent crime rate resumed its downward trend. Now, the violent crime rate is half of what it was in the early 90s.
Crime rates are significant to criminal defense attorneys because politicians, police and prosecutors play close attention to them. When crime rates are high, it’s easier to justify cracking down on potential offenders. That sometimes means acting in ways that curtail the constitutional protections guaranteed to criminal suspects and defendants.
High crime rates make people afraid. When people are afraid, they sometimes dehumanize the source of their fear, and that can be costly to criminal suspects and defendants. Therefore, it’s important for the public to know when violent crime rates are at historic lows, as they are now.
How is the crime rate tracked?
Each year, the FBI collects crime data from thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies about how many crimes have been reported, charged, and resolved. This is called the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. At the same time, a survey called the National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS) seeks information about unreported crimes.
Four types of crimes make up the violent crime rate: Murder, rape, robbery and assault. (Property crimes are also tracked, and they have also consistently trended downward since the early 90s.)
Of those four types, murder and robbery were clearly down. Rape is up, and this may actually mean that there are more rapes occurring. However, in 2013 the FBI modernized its definition of rape to include non-forcible yet still non-consensual sex. That may have prompted people to report more rapes, as their actual experiences now fit within the definition used by the FBI. The assault rate over the past few years has been flat. Also, while murder is down overall, it did rise in some cities.
One takeaway from these crime statistics is that we can take comfort. While many were concerned that crime might be rising again after upticks in 2015 and 2016, fears of a lasting increase in violent crime appear to have been overblown.
Another takeaway is that we are not in a position to need a crackdown on crime. Lawmakers, police and prosecutors should keep in mind that the violent crime rate continues to dwindle and refrain from applying additional pressure on the public.