26 September 2017

Property Crime Down For 14th Straight Year In U.S.

The News
The estimated number of violent crimes in the nation increased for the second straight year, rising 4.1 percent in 2016 when compared with 2015 data, according to FBI figures released today. Property crimes dropped 1.3 percent, marking the 14th consecutive year the collective estimates for these offenses declined. 
The 2016 statistics show the estimated rate of violent crime was 386.3 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the estimated rate of property crime was 2,450.7 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants. The violent crime rate rose 3.4 percent compared with the 2015 rate, and the property crime rate declined 2.0 percent.
From the FBI relying on Table 1 of the report for which this is a press release.

Property Crime

Property crimes rates per 100,000 people have decreased steadily for 15 years from 2001 to 2016, the most recent year for which data is available (one more year than the number of years the raw number of property crimes has declined since from 2001 to 2002 in increase in crime incidents was overshadowed by an increase in population).

The 2001, property crime rate per 100,000 people was 3,658.1 while in 2001 it was 2,450.7, a decline of 33% in 15 years.

Also, the 2000 to 2001 slight increase in the property crime rate was only a minor blip in a longer term downward trend. In 1997, the property crime rat per 100,000 people was 4,316.3. The 2016 property crime rate is 43% lower than it was in 1997.

Looking at sub-components of property crime:

* The burglary rate is down 49% from 1997 to 2016.

* The larceny rate is down 40% from 1997 to 2016.

* The motor vehicle theft rate is down 53% from 1997 to 2016 despite increasing from 2014 to 2016. The peak decline the motor vehicle theft rate in 2014 from 1997 was 57%. Some of this increase in excess of overall crime rate reductions may reflect technology that makes it harder to steal cars.

Burglaries and motor vehicle theft (and robberies) all net a greater average value of property stolen than simple larceny, so it is increasingly hard to earn income from property crime.

It seems plausible to me that some of the decline in the larceny rate may reflect decreased reporting as the value of tangible personal property has fallen relative to other forms of spending. Stuff that can be stolen is cheaper than it used to be and may not be worth reporting as stolen.

Violent Crime

The violent crime rate in 1997 per 100,000 people was 611.0. The 2016 violent crime rate of 386.3 per 100,000 people is 37% below the rate in 1997.

The violent crime rate hit its lowest recent point in 2014 at 361.6 per 100,000 people (41% below the peak). The violent crime rate in 2016 was about 7% above the low point.

* The robbery rate is down 45% from 1997 to 2016 and increased only 1.5% since its 2014 low point.

The 538 blog looks at the trends in murder rates, an analysis summed up in this chart:

It also notes that declines since a peak around 1991 (25 years ago) have been even greater. Robbery, burglary and auto theft (all of which are big ticket property crimes) are all down more than 62% since 1991. Murder, rape, aggravated assault and ordinary theft have fallen less strongly.

538 also offers some insights on non-index crime drug law enforcement trends:

Incarceration Rates Compared

Historically, incarceration rates soared between 1974 and 1994 (more than ten-fold over twenty years), and then continued to rise more modestly until the peaked in the period from 1994 to 2006 (about 20% over 12 years). Since 2006 incarceration rates have declined by about 11% over a decade from the peak incarceration rate.

In 2015, there were 1,476,847 people in state and federal prisons for a U.S. population of 320,896,618, a rate of 460 per 100,000 people.

In 1997, there were about 1,350,000 people in state and federal prisons for a U.S. population of 267,783,607, a rate of about 504 per 100,000 people.

At the peak raw number of people in state and federal prisons in 2006 of about 1,550,000 in state and federal prisons, when the population was 299,398,484, the rate was about 518 per 100,000 people.

Thus, during ten years during which the rate at which people were incarcerated in state and federal prisons has fallen, property crimes rates have continued to fall steadily and violent crime rates fell for eight of those ten years.

More on incarceration and crime in a Marginal Revolution post that reports a report that the marginal crime reduction from more incarceration in the U.S. has hit zero or might even be negative.


Good News

While a couple of years of increases in violent crimes in the last two years (which other evidence suggests is mostly confined to a handful of cities) is not good news and generally speaking, we care more about violent crime than property crime, the twenty year trend in U.S. crime rates is still remarkable positive.

Mostly A Common Trend

Despite the fact that property crime rates and violent crime rates don't exactly track each other, the trends are close enough to each other (37% v. 43% over a decade) to infer that most of the decline in crime rates has a common source (also robbery, which is classified as a violent crime and makes up about 25% of the violent crime total, is also a crime that involves property).

Some of this is due to a shrinking "crime age" population as a share of the total population, but that is a pretty modest share of the total decline. Abortion rates and less lead pollution have also been credited with a targeted decline in the "at risk" crime age population, and these factors could credibly account for a larger share of the total although also certainly not all of it.

Teens Are Also Better Behaved

It also comes at a time when teen pregnancy, alcohol use and drug use are all at record lows. Fewer teens are dropping out of high school and more are going to college.

Adult Blue Collar Men Despair 

Opiate abuse (with overdose deaths), alcohol abuse, disabilities at younger ages and suicide are all up for blue collar adult men, but this apparently hasn't translated into higher crime, although an examination of the state specific data might cast more light on why other forms of despair don't seem to have produced much more crime.

Drunk driving (and traffic deaths generally), however, is down significantly.

The Economy Has Improved In The Long Run

There has been economic growth over the last 20 years, although a minor (2001) and a severe (2008) recession along the way didn't seem to increase crime rates, and most of the benefits of that economic growth has accrued to the wealthy who were already committing crimes at very low rate. Increased economic inequality has apparently not increased crime.

Incarceration Compared

It has happened despite declining rates of incarceration in state and federal prisons.

Incarceration rates have fallen much more slowly than crime rates, however. Crime rates were decreasing significantly from 1997 to 2006, while incarceration rates continued to rise. Crime rates have fallen much faster than incarceration rates since 2006.

Admittedly, incarceration is a lagging indicator, but we are now at 1970s crime rates, but we have early 1990s incarceration rates, and an average prison sentence is only several years. Sentences for crimes continued to get longer even as crime rates fell.

It is entirely possible that we incarcerated too few people in the 1970s thereby exposing the public to people who posed a high crime risk (although why were crime rates so low with so few people incarcerated in that case?). But, we are almost certainly incarcerating too many people now with the highest (or nearly the highest) incarceration rate in the world and a ratio of crime rates to incarceration rates that continues to increase.

We are getting less bang for our buck from longer sentences now because early on, longer sentences put away people who would have been released before "aging out" of the high crime age bracket, while now lots of people sentences to long sentences long ago have aged out and represent a much more modest threat to the public than they did earlier, but are still incarcerated.


Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill was one major factor that coincided with a rise in incarceration. The number of people in inpatient mental health care fell by something like 900,000 while the number of people now under criminal justice system supervision is about 800,000.

Medical Care

Improved medical care could explain part of the decline in the murder rate, but not the decline in other kinds of violent crimes that has happened at the same time.

Has This Reduced Property Insurance Rates?

While it is a question for another day, it doesn't seem that property insurance rates have fallen despite the dramatic decline in property crimes. Perhaps crime is a very minor factor in property insurance claims relative to accidental damage to property (e.g. from storms and fires) and perhaps inflation overstates the relative property insurance amounts in real dollar terms. But, it is worth looking into at some point.

Vera Says Vive La Difference!

A guide to the 2016 FBI statistics from the Vera Institute emphasizes variation in crime rates from place to place with "hyper-local" problems driving the trends this year.

UPDATE October 9, 2017:

A Longer Term Perspective

These data points can be integrated with longer term crime data. This suggests that as of 2009, we were at a 100 year low in crime rates in the U.S., and probably lower than any earlier period in United States history. So, the crime rate in 2014 may be the lowest of all time in the United States.

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