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Posts By Laura Pacifici

Bio: Laura Pacifici is a research assistant in the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute.

Violence is up in America. What does it mean?

Author: John Roman and Laura Pacifici

| Posted: June 4th, 2013

Yesterday, the FBI announced preliminary crime statistics for 2012 as reported by local police agencies. After five years of large declines in violence—and a more than two-decade trend toward less violence—the number of violent crimes were up slightly.

The FBI reports that, “[i]n 2012, the violent crime offenses of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter increased 1.5 percent from the 2011 figures, aggravated assault increased 1.7 percent, and robbery increased 0.6 percent. Forcible rape offenses declined 0.3 percent.”  Once the data are adjusted for population growth, the overall change from year to year is even smaller: less than one percentage point

By itself, this might not be too troubling. But this follows last year’s announcement from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that national survey data showed an even bigger jump in violence—17 percent.  (It should be noted that violence is very rare, so while it’s a large increase percentage-wise, in real numbers, the increase was from 3.3 violent victimizations per 1,000 to 4.3 per 1,000. Those numbers are very similar to the FBI data, which shows 3.8 violent victimizations per 1,000).

So, what are we to make of this increase? After more than two decades of declines, is violence making a comeback? Does this mean that we’re returning to the 1980s, when rampant violence was consistently listed among the nation’s most important problems?

Probably not. If you fit a line into very long-term trends, what you see is that in the last couple of years, violence declined below the expected rate predicted by the trend line.


If you fit a trend line from 1980 when homicide peaked, 2012 is still well below long-term trends. (If you were to fit a line beginning in 1990, today’s violence would be well above the trend line simply due to greater declines in violence in the 1990s than since 2000, which provides little insight into the meaning of the current increase.)

Crime trends, and especially trends in violence, are notoriously hard to predict. Subtle changes in weather, consumer behavior, policing, and numerous other factors can all cause short-term fluctuations around the long-term averages. The key is this: if violent crime continues to increase at the rate that it did from 2011 to 2012, it will still be many years before violent crime rates cross above the long-term downward trend.

While 2012 does not appear to have been a particularly good year in our fight to reduce violence, it does not send a strong signal that darker days are coming.

Filed under: Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Justice Policy Center, Policing and crime prevention
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Stemming the tide of Federal prison growth

Author: Nancy La Vigne and Laura Pacifici

| Posted: May 17th, 2013




For years, lawmakers on Capitol Hill watched as the federal prison system continued to grow. But as the federal government increasingly tightens its belt through furloughs and budget cuts, Congressional leaders are turning their attention to curbing this unsustainable growth.

This issue is increasingly receiving bipartisan support, as policymakers from across the political spectrum join together to take action. The Chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for federal prison expenditures, Republican Frank Wolf, has plans to join with the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Chaka Fattah, to create a task force to assess and identify ways to reduce prison population and spending growth.

The House Judiciary Committee also recently launched a bipartisan task force—dubbed the Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013—to review and streamline the nearly 4,500 federal offenses in the criminal code.

As they begin this work, policymakers are confronted with a bloated and ever-expanding system. In fiscal year 2013, for example, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) commanded a 25 percent share of the Department of Justice’s overall budget, representing a 4.2 percent increase from fiscal year 2012. If current rates of growth in the BOP’s budget continue, this agency is projected to consume nearly 30 percent of the DOJ’s budget by 2020.

The growth in the BOP’s portion of the budget is mirrored by dramatic increases in the federal prison population. The BOP population is now nearly 10 times what it was in 1980. In addition to posing substantial costs to taxpayers, the expanding BOP prison population prompts concerns about overcrowded facilities and the disproportionate impact of incarceration on certain subpopulations and communities.

So what can federal policymakers do to stem the tide of mass incarceration, saving scarce resources that could be better used to prevent cuts to essential services, such as federal law enforcement and state and local grants for drug courts, reentry programs, and gang reduction initiatives?

They can start by looking at the two main drivers of the growth in the federal prison population: increasing numbers of prisoners and longer sentence lengths.  In particular, the increase in time served by drug offenders—who make up half of the entire BOP population today—was the biggest factor in the growth of the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.

Reducing the prison population requires policies that both divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison and impose back-end sentence reductions for those already incarcerated. While the BOP plays a key role in implementing some of the back-end changes, its ability to do so on a large scale is limited by, and dependent upon, statutes and budget constraints controlled by Washington lawmakers.

Moreover, making policy changes to curb federal prison growth requires input and support from a wide array of federal criminal justice stakeholders, such as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, corrections officials, and victims’ advocates.  Buy-in from these key decisionmakers will be essential to the success of attempts to drive down the federal prison population.

Levenworth Federal Prison, Map data ©2013 Google, DigitalGlobe

Filed under: Corrections, reentry, and community supervision, Courts and sentencing, Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Justice Policy Center |Tags: , , , , , , ,