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A Major Disconnect: Violent Crimes, Public Perception, and the American Prisoner

The violent crime rate in the US has been steadily declining for decades. All types of violent crimes are seeing less occurrences not only per capita, but also less total instances, even with the rising population. The violent crime rate in the US has declined nearly 50% from 1991 until 2010, and while 2011 data is still preliminary, the FBI recently announced that there was yet another drop in violent crime (4%) from 2010 to 2011[i]. Yet, people still believe that crime is higher than ever, even though it is quite the opposite.

This is not a new phenomenon; results of a running Gallop Poll, asking people the question “Is there more crime in the US than there was a year ago, or less?” show that, for the past couple decades, the majority of people think that crime is getting worse and worse. The latest result (2011) revealed that 68% of people think there is more crime than there was a year ago, while just 17% say less. Compare this with 71% think there was more crime than a year ago in 2008, and 62% in 2002[ii].

One thing that could be causing this difference of opinion and reality could be the US’s unbelievable, escalating prisoner rate. The United States has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people, as of 2010 data. This puts the US #1 in the world, with a rate 29% higher than that of 2nd place Russia[iii]. From 2000-2009 the number of prisoners in the US increased by 16% (Federal Prisoners increased by 43% while State Prisoners increased by 13%).

As of 2009, there were 188,000 prisoners in US Federal Prison, and fewer than 15,000 of them were in for violent crimes (7.9%)[iv]. A majority were in for non-violent drug-related crimes (nearly 100,000 or 51%). So while, by definition, the US is seeing a rise in “criminals”, it is not because of an increase in violent crimes, but is due to stricter punishments for petty, often victimless crimes.

The media has been very vocal about violent crimes and gun-related crimes recently, and it is interesting to point out that despite the drop in gun-related crimes, gun sales have likely not declined, but instead increased. While actual gun sale data is not available to the public, there are ways to estimate these including background checks and financial information of gun companies. The graph below shows that both background checks for gun sales as well as Smith and Wesson Holding Company both have upward trends from 2000 to 2011. Contrast this to the graph above which shows the downward trending of violent crimes.


Gun Sales Estimate

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