Understanding the FBI Crime Report

By Mike Lawlor (lower left) and John Wetzel (lower right)

lawlor-wetzelToday, the FBI released its annual report on crime, which included distressing news: violent crime—while still at levels far below what it was 20 years ago—increased between 2014 and 2015. Whenever elected officials see anything indicating their constituents are less safe, they are understandably and appropriately anxious.

Given our respective roles in state government, we expect to be on the phone a lot over the next few days talking to politicians and the media. In preparing for those conversations, we take a number of steps to ensure data in the report is put in context.

Put the data into local and historical context. A national trend does not necessarily constitute a trend in a particular state, city or neighborhood. In Connecticut, both violent and property crime rates in 2015 were significantly lower than they were in 2014. In Pennsylvania, property crime was down, while violent crime in 2015 compared to 2014 is almost unchanged. Those statewide numbers, however, mask significant differences among cities within the Commonwealth. Violent crime is down significantly in Pittsburgh, but up in Philadelphia.

Then there is the matter of the timeframe. Experts on the economy or the environment are typically reluctant to draw major conclusions from a year’s worth of data, and we should be similarly careful about reading too much into changes we see from one year to the next. What’s more meaningful is the fact that the drop in violent and property crime in Connecticut over the past year is part of an 8-year trend. In Pennsylvania, crime has dropped significantly over the past decade, and this is the first in many years that violent crime has not declined.

Probe state and local data. Disaggregating the crime trends by type of crime, along with location, is essential. For example: To what extent is the increase in violent crime fueled by an uptick in domestic violence? Is auto theft down dramatically, but burglaries are up? Is a statewide increase in burglary driven by a surge in burglaries in one particular city or county? Is there any correlation between the number of law enforcement officers per capita, arrest rates and number of crimes reported? Scouring these data prompts useful questions, the answers to which can provide important insights that can be used to design strategies to reverse recent increases.

Understand who is contributing to different types of crime. In states where the number of incarcerated people has declined, elected officials and the media may be tempted to blame an increase in crime rates on the people who are no longer incarcerated and are now being supervised in the community. But caution must be exercised before drawing such a connection. In Connecticut, as our crime rate has declined, the number of people in our state prison population has sunk to its lowest level in 20 years.

An extraordinary study of four California cities conducted by The Council of State Governments Justice Center found that approximately one in five arrests involved someone under correctional supervision. That study, which was commissioned by local leaders in law enforcement, found that people under community supervision made up a much larger percentage of drug crimes (one in three arrests) than violent crimes (one in six arrests). On the one hand, these data suggest that targeting probationers and parolees will have a limited impact on overall violent crime rates. On the other hand, the variation of the data from one county to the next—as well as the understanding that the subset of people on parole supervision who had been assessed as being at high risk of reoffense were especially likely to be among people arrested for violent crime—demonstrate the value of concentrating on smaller subsets of people under community supervision.

Taking the steps described above can help a policymaker understand the state implications of a national report. That said, if a state elected official has evidence of an increase in one or more types of crime in his or her jurisdiction—even if the increase is small and even if crime remains lower than any time in the past two generations—odds are he or she will want to do something about it.

Historically, the first instinct of a state elected official who wants to crack down on crime has been to seek ways to lengthen sentences to prison. We think, however, the priority for state elected officials in such situations must be how they can support local efforts to prevent crime and increase public safety. As leaders of the CSG Justice Center board, we will be directing staff to highlight innovative ways state leaders can support local law enforcement, such as:

  • The work Oregon is doing with its criminal justice “Knowledge Bank” to collect and share best practices and relevant research;
  • State grants to law enforcement agencies that fund the adoption of best practices and improved community relations, such as the “Safe Oklahoma Grant Program,” which helps communities target reductions in violent crime;
  • Opportunities for training police officers, and considering statutory training requirements.

Any discussion about crime is bound to be emotional, especially at a time when recent events reinforce concerns about the fundamental fairness of the criminal justice system, and law enforcement and justice agencies struggle to improve relationships with the community while preventing crime.

It’s incumbent on all of us who live and breathe criminal justice issues to appreciate the pressure that a national report showing an increase in violent crime puts on elected officials, to equip these elected officials with important context to interpret these national data, and to help them respond with strategies that have the greatest potential to help ensure that a one-year increase in crime does not become a lasting trend.

Mike Lawlor is under secretary of Criminal Justice Policy and Planning for Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy.  
John Wetzel is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. They serve, respectively, as chair and vice chair of The Council of State Governments Justice Center’s Executive Committee.