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| Posted: January 21st, 2012
Child poverty, violent crime, and racial inequality — stubborn challenges confronting citizens and policymakers in metros across the US, and the focus for last week’s MetroTrends blogs:
- Susan Popkin and Jennifer Comey described a promising initiative to help children in one of DC’s most distressed neighborhoods.
- John Roman challenged Charles Murray’s contention that mass incarceration “worked” to reduce violent crime.
Filed under: Built Environment, Crime, Economy, People Add a Comment »
- Margery Turner marked the MLK holiday with metro-specific measures of the opportunity gaps still facing African Americans and Latinos.
| Posted: January 18th, 2012
Not enough has been made about a recent American Enterprise Institute blog post by Charles Murray, who argues that “higher imprisonment was the necessary condition for 100 percent of the reduction in violent crime” over the past 20 years—a claim that runs counter to his colleagues’ assertions that the real correlation is far smaller. Here’s Murray’s graphic supporting that claim:
Murray's Original Graphic: Violent Offenses vs. Prisoners per 1,000 Violent Offenses
Murray’s analysis is a textbook example of how to mislead with statistics. First, let’s look at what happens if you focus exclusively on the blue line, which is the ratio of prisoners to violent crime. Murray wants you to interpret this as the change in the number of prisoners in America, arguing that the increase is evidence that the growing prison population has resulted in declining crime rates.
But that’s not at all what the blue line represents. Because it is the ratio of prisoners to violent crime, the blue line is the number of people we incarcerate per 1,000 violent crimes. Violent crime is tragic, but we, as a society, want that line to be as low as possible. The lower the line is, the less we are spending per violent crime. The line is at its minimum in the late 1970s until 1980—just prior to America’s incarceration binge. That the line goes up after 1980 is not a good thing, as Murray would have you believe, but a very bad thing—it’s what economists refer to as diminishing marginal returns to imprisonment. Every year since 1980 we have had to lock up a lot more people to maintain the same amount of violence, which means prison is getting less and less cost effective.
Prisoners per 1,000 Violent Offenses
And that’s just one problem with this analysis. A more troubling problem is that the data behind the graphic are inherently tautological. With some mathematical sleight of hand, Murray claims to compare prison and violence, when what he actually compares is violent offenses (the red line) to prisoners per violent offense (the blue line). In other words, Murray compares violence to violent crimes per prisoner. The comparison of the red line to the blue line is basically a ratio:
What’s wrong with that? This ratio has the convenient property of overstating the relationship between crime and the prison population. If violence declines, it affects both measures in a way that makes increases in imprisonment seem to be more important than they actually are. When violence declines, the blue line goes down, of course. But, since violence is the denominator of the red line, and a shrinking denominator makes a number bigger, the red line goes up by a similar proportion.
Since Murray essentially counts violence multiple times, this approach guarantees that his argument that prison reduces crime is supported by the graphic regardless of what actually happens with imprisonment and violence.
Moving from left to right on Murray’s graphic, we start with 1960–1971 when violence increased about 250 percent and prison populations declined ever so slightly (from 212,000 to 198,000 or 6.6 percent). Thus, of course, the red line increases about 250 percent. What happens to the number Murray wants you to see as the “prison” statistic? In real terms, prison populations declined 6.6 percent, so the blue line should be almost flat. But, since violent offenses are on both sides of the equation, the red line declines more than 300 percent. Magic! The huge decline in the blue line visually supports Murray’s contention that declining incarceration causes more crime in the same way increasing incarceration causes less crime. But, of course, it is an illusion since the number of prisoners was basically flat.
Taking this analytic approach makes it very easy to disguise the real relationship between imprisonment and violent crime. Here’s a simple thought experiment to demonstrate that changes in violence, and not changes in prison populations, explain Murray’s entire story: suppose we take the real crime trend as depicted above and graph it. Then let’s assume that the prison population had remained unchanged. Here’s that picture:
Per Capita Violence Compared to a Static Prison Population
It looks almost exactly like Murray’s graphic. Why is that? Because Murray’s graphic is not really about the effect of imprisonment on crime at all. Instead, it’s just about changes in violence.
Want more evidence? Here’s a straight up comparison of the number of prisoners (per 100,000 Americans) and violent offenses (per 100,000 Americans). It’s far less convincing than Murray’s graphic.
The True Relationship: Changes in Crime vs. Changes in Prisoner Levels
While it is likely that prison had some effect on the crime decline, the picture Murray relies on dramatically overstates the effect.
Filed under: Crime 2 Comments »
| Posted: December 2nd, 2011
Questions keep surfacing at Penn State about who knew what and when. The investigation of charges that a former coach sexually molested young boys on campus is likely to uncover more victims and more instances where administrators turned a blind eye. So far, however, the University itself is mainly escaping any direct blame.
Everyone at Penn State from the janitors to Joe Paterno have argued that they followed the rules and reported what they knew to the appropriate person next up in the chain of command. Yet, nothing was done.
Inaction like this has the makings of what criminologists call “an organizational accident.” Borrowing from medicine, UI consultant James Doyle has developed an organizational accident model positing that gross miscarriages of justice occur when organizations are set up to ignore those injustices.
To go back to medicine, it wasn’t just the surgeon who cut off your good leg instead of your bad one that made a mistake. The problem was that everyone from the bedside nurse to the operating room staff failed to notice that the wrong leg was being prepped and then amputated.
Death row exonerations tell us a lot about organizational accidents too. Many overturned convictions rest on unreliable evidence: cross-race witness identifications, testimony by jailhouse snitches, and junk science (think bite mark evidence). But zeroing in only on faulty evidence misses a crucial element of wrongful convictions.
Consider this case: an innocent person is convicted based largely on the testimony of a prisoner who heard the defendant “confess.” Even worse than banking on an unreliable witness is using unreliable testimony to implicate the wrong person — often, to the deliberate exclusion of all other possible suspects, including the guilty party. What happens is that prosecutors and investigators building a case around the evidence don’t question it. Then, judges allow the evidence to be admitted and juries believe it. The whole system is so badly warped that it can’t detect errors.
This kind of blindness to error sounds very similar to what we are hearing from not so- Happy Valley these days. And if there was an organizational accident along these lines at Penn State, then the university is culpable.
But it is not enough for universities to stop turning a blind eye to this kind of malfeasance, the solution is for systems to be put in place that detect problems before they become organizational accidents. For instance, many states now have Capital Defenders’ units that assist defense counsel in death penalty cases. Philadelphia has created a Chief Performance Officer to monitor the behavior of prosecutors. Universities could establish a similar system of oversight.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant, but it is not enough to simply open the blinds—the sunlight has to be pointed to the dark corners where these appalling acts take place.
Filed under: Crime, Other 1 Comment »
| Posted: November 12th, 2011
Last week, MetroTrends bloggers showed how attention-getting headlines sometimes distract us from the evidence that supports sensible policymaking:
- Margaret Simms counteracts scary reports of Social Security’s failure with solid facts about its role in lifting people out of poverty.
- Akiva Liberman argues for keeping crime off the front page, allowing policymakers to make fact-based decisions about sentencing.
- And Marla McDaniel shows how many young African American adults are disconnected from both work and school in the aftermath of the Great Recession – especially in Rust Belt metros like Detroit and Chicago.
We hope you keep coming back to MetroTrends for solid facts and analysis.
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| Posted: November 7th, 2011
What kind of attention promotes effective crime policy? On the one hand, too much attention seems to undermine effective policy making. Keeping crime largely off of the front page is critical to rational, deliberate criminal justice policy-making. When crime makes headlines, crime policy gravitates toward the crime du jour, and is easily hijacked by emotions and by politicians fanning emotional flames.
As a case in point, states’ fiscal crises are leading them to rethink sentencing policies – in ways that were unthinkable during the crime surge of the 1980s and early 1990s. Only after crime has declined for over fifteen years can policy-makers consider lowering sentences and redirecting prison dollars toward less punitive approaches that can maintain public safety. Possibilities include alternative sanctions, alternative use of criminal justice resources, and child-focused crime prevention. But when the level of attention to crime is high, the political risk of being painted as “soft on crime” makes such reforms all but impossible.
And, yet, without enough attention to crime, do we lose the political motivation to fund crime prevention, criminal justice reforms, and rigorous research and evaluation? After all, even with the crime drop, our violent crime rates are still much too high, and higher than other developed countries. Don’t we need continued attention to crime until criminal justice reforms and policy research receives funding commensurate with the importance of crime?
My conclusion is that we need systematic, sustained, and moderate attention to crime and criminal justice. Such lower-intensity attention allows policy-makers and the public to consider sentencing policy across all crimes, not just crime by crime, as happens in response to crime crises. We are long overdue for a sustained and systematic examination of criminal justice policy, along the lines proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, in his National Criminal Justice Commission legislation calling for “a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the criminal justice system from top to bottom.” This measure has been blocked in the Senate for now, as noted this week by the Washington Post and New York Times, although it received bipartisan support in the House last year. The time to launch such an initiative is now, before the next unanticipated crime crisis or crime wave.
Filed under: Crime 1 Comment »
| Posted: November 5th, 2011
Last week, MetroTrends bloggers offered new data views and the latest research findings on some of the biggest problems facing US metros’ health, safety, schooling and employment:
- Margery Turner sums up lessons from an experimental program aimed at helping poor families move to high-opportunity neighborhoods.
As always, we welcome your comments, and hope you're as excited for next week's posts as we are.
Filed under: Crime, Economy, Health Care, Urban Culture Add a Comment »
| Posted: October 22nd, 2011
Last week, MetroTrends bloggers offered up solid information about perennial challenges vexing public policymakers in US metros:
- Barbara Ormond ponders what it what it will take to change Americans’ eating habits.
- John Roman offers compelling evidence of declining crime rates in big cities nationwide.
- Molly Scott warns that poverty among Latino kids may be even higher than the latest estimates suggest because so many of their families are doubling to cut housing costs.
- And Greg Mills argues that policy researchers shouldn’t launch randomized control trials until they’ve worked the bugs out of program designs.
See you again next week.
Filed under: Crime, Urban Culture, Washington DC Add a Comment »
| Posted: October 18th, 2011
Not to rain on New York City’s parade, but the much ballyhooed nosedive in the city’s homicide rate is mainly the reflection of a national trend. Yes, it’s great that New York’s streets are safer, but all the nation’s urban streets are safer than they were around 1990—the height of the crack cocaine epidemic.
Take a look at this list of the biggest 25 cities, ranked by homicide rate, and you’ll see that the relative standing of US metros has noticeably changed over the decade only for Dallas (which saw a bigger drop than NYC), Milwaukee and Columbus (which saw their ranking soar), and Los Angeles (which saw a 75% drop in homicide rate, almost identical to New York City’s 79% drop). On the chart, the numbers on the bottom show how a city ranks (smaller is worse,) and the heights shows you how close, say, Baltimore is to Dallas (not very) or Chicago is to Memphis (very). Thanks to Steve Levitt for the basic idea of comparing homicide declines in the top 25 cities. The other features are MetroTrends originals.
National Homicide Rates
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| Posted: October 12th, 2011
On September 15th, Gallup’s monthly poll of adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia went for the jugular: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?”
Crime and violence finished 33rd, tied with concerns about the media and “the way our children are raised.” In fact, less than one percent of Americans put crime in first place. In the 1980s and 1990s, crime routinely headed the list. Now Americans worry far more about inflation (which declined in June) and losing our military might (never mind that defense spending is at an all-time high, around $700 billion annually). The public sees crime as less of a problem today than some problems that aren’t even real.
Apparently, Americans believe we have defeated our crime problem.
Let that soak in for a moment. The nation’s list of conquered social ills is pretty short. We have vaccines that have markedly improved public health. We have much less lead in our blood since leaded gasoline was outlawed. Homicides by drunk drivers are way down. Medicare and Social Security mean few elderly Americans experience grave poverty and food insecurity. And that’s about it.
So are Americans right? And, if they are, what can we learn from our struggle to fight crime?
As for crime’s ranking, Americans are correct. It shouldn’t top the list. Crime has steadily declined since 1991--especially violent crime and especially in the past two years. Crime rates are down where they were when Richard Nixon was president.
So, the question is, what has led to improved public safety, and is it worth it?
Number one on the list is mass incarceration. According to the Pew Center on the States, 1 in 100 Americans was incarcerated in 2008 and 1 in 31 were in community custody or incarcerated. Among minorities, make that one in 9 black men between 20 and 34. Given the social and economic costs to families and neighborhoods, mass incarceration is an astonishingly expensive way to control crime. For example, a RAND study found domestic enforcement cost eight times as much to prevent as much crime as drug treatment.
Number two? On most lists, it’s policing. Many analysts say that improvements in police professionalism, police investigative practices and the introduction of proactive community policing have reduced crime. This seems a likely explanation, but unfortunately we have too little data on crime and police practices to know how much better policing reduced crime, and we know it’s probably more expensive than alternatives to incarceration.
Number three is the end of the crack epidemic. Most drug policy experts think it died of natural causes as more and more of those in temptation’s way bore terrible witness to what happened to users. Here again, mass incarceration may have hastened its end, but again, at an exorbitant cost.
Number four is luck. Many explanations for crime's decline have nothing to do with public crime policy. The end of leaded gas is a prime example. Lead in the blood is associated with lower self-control—definitively linked to criminality—and lower IQ. But changes in the gasoline formula had nothing to do with crime fighting.
We have learned a lot in the last two decades of the crime decline about how public policy can prevent crime. “Best buys” are treatment for substance abuse, mental health and other disorders associated with criminality; educational and vocational training; and removal of stigmatizing laws. But these ‘softer’ alternatives to more marketable ‘tough on crime’ policies like prison are only slowly taking hold.
In some ways, it would be easier to fight crime and get better alternatives on the public’s radar screens if Americans worried about it more. But for now, we are stuck with over-priced crime reduction.
Filed under: Crime, Urban Culture Add a Comment »
| Posted: October 8th, 2011
This week, MetroTrends bloggers tackled an eclectic mix of topics, looking at life in metropolitan America from many angles:
- KiDeuk Kim raises ethical questions about sentencing based on predicted (rather than actual) criminal behavior.
- Bob Lerman’s five-part alternative to the Obama jobs plan promises a bigger bang for fewer bucks.
- Rolf Pendall argues for the value of dog parks – not just for dog owners (and there are lots of us), but for neighborhood vitality.
- Rich Johnson shows what the latest unemployment numbers mean for older workers who want to keep working (and need to) but can’t.
And, if you haven’t seen it yet, check out MetroTrends’ new interactive unemployment map, featuring the latest numbers for the top 100 metros. You can see the national picture, compare metros, or download data for your own analysis.
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