Contrary to public opinion, crime is historically low; meanwhile prisons keep filling up.

Facts v. feelings

What people think is clear. “Seven in 10 Americans say there is more crime in the U.S. now than there was a year ago — up slightly from the 63|PERCENT| who said so in 2014,” according to an October 22, 2015 Gallop Poll Report. “Meanwhile, 18|PERCENT| say there is less crime, and 8|PERCENT| say the level of crime has stayed the same.” See:
While most people feel crime is increasing, crime is decreasing.

The 2015 FBI data is out. While the 2015 US violent crime rate, a subset of the crime rate, increased by 3|PERCENT| over the last year, the overall crime rate nationally continues to decline. Since 1985, the  

  • Crime rate in the United States has declined by 45|PERCENT|
  • Violent crime rate in United States has declined by 33|PERCENT| 
  • Meanwhile, from 1985- 2014 the United States imprisonment has increased by 133|PERCENT|, more than doubling.   

Here is the data:

US Crime Rates and US Incarceration Rates
In reviewing the recent crime rate data, Ken Cuccinelli, former attorney general for Virginia, observed, “Communities across the country still have far safer streets than twenty years ago, as homicide and overall violent crime rates are roughly half of their early-1990’s peaks.”
Why this significant drop in the crime rate?

Many believe that the drop in crime is primarily caused by the increase in incarceration and length of sentences and the decrease in release. “The reality is far more complex…. [A]bout 25|PERCENT| of the decline in violent crime can be attributed to increased incarceration. While one-quarter of the crime drop is not insubstantial, we then know that most of the decline in crime — three quarters — was due to factors other than incarceration.” Ryan S. King, Marc Mauer, Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship (2005) at 3,4.
A 2015 report by Dr. Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowling, What Caused the Crime Decline?, The Brennan Center for Justice (2015),  answers the question of why the crime rate is declining with three findings:

1. Increased incarceration at today’s levels has a negligible crime control benefit: Incarceration
has been declining in effectiveness as a crime control tactic since before 1980. Since 2000,
the effect on the crime rate of increasing incarceration, in other words, adding individuals
to the prison population, has been essentially zero. Increased incarceration accounted for
approximately 6 percent of the reduction in property crime in the 1990s (this could vary
statistically from 0 to 12 percent), and accounted for less than 1 percent of the decline in
property crime this century. Increased incarceration has had little effect on the drop in violent
crime in the past 24 years. In fact, large states such as California, Michigan, New Jersey, New
York, and Texas have all reduced their prison populations while crime has continued to fall.
2. One policing approach that helps police gather data used to identify crime patterns and
target resources, a technique called CompStat, played a role in bringing down crime in
cities: Based on an analysis of the 50 most populous cities, this report finds that CompStat-style
programs were responsible for a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime in those cities that introduced
it. Increased numbers of police officers also played a role in reducing crime.
3. Certain social, economic, and environmental factors also played a role in the crime drop:
According to this report’s empirical analysis, the aging population, changes in income, and
decreased alcohol consumption also affected crime. A review of past research indicates that
consumer confidence and inflation also seem to have contributed to crime reduction.
Id. at 4.
This report concluded that “increasing incarceration had a minimal effect on reducing property crime in the 1990s and no effect on violent crime. In the 2000s, increased incarceration had no effect on violent crime and accounted for less than one-hundredth of the decade’s property crime drop.” Id. at 79.
Why are feelings and reality at odds?

People, often well informed people, feel crime is on the rise when it is actually dropping. Why the dramatic disconnect?
Gallop has an opinion: “This unwarranted pessimism may stem from the imperfect indications of crime that Americans receive from the news and other sources, as well as Americans' overall mood. In line with this point, the view that crime is worsening could reflect the broader decline in Americans' optimism about the country, as satisfaction with the way things are going declined from 71|PERCENT| in 1999 to 7|PERCENT| in 2008; and, after slightly higher ratings in 2009 and 2010, it is now back down to 13|PERCENT|. Whatever the case, there is a positive story to be told about the nation's violent crime problem that Americans haven't yet fully heard or absorbed.” See October 22, 2015 Gallop Poll Report.
A further explanation is that each of us has a Ph.D. in media criminology. As Craig Haney, a Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz, has identified:
By the time they are old enough to vote or serve as jurors, most citizens in the United States have earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in “media criminology.” The average eighteen-year-old has watched some twenty thousand hours of television programming, much of which has been devoted to crime-related news and drama. Moreover, adults are afforded seemingly limitless opportunities to obtain continuing, post-doctoral education. Indeed, the typical American household now holds more television sets than people, and the sets are on over eight hours per day. By most estimates, crime continues to be the industry’s mainstay, with approximately one-third of television programming devoted to crime and law enforcement shows. News media are also dominated by crime-oriented content. For example, an estimated one-fifth of local television and newspaper reporting is devoted to crime.
I have argued elsewhere that the media play a critically important and potentially deleterious role in helping to shape criminal justice policy. Media myths and misinformation substitute for real knowledge for many members of the public who–as citizens, voters, and jurors–participate in setting policy agendas, advancing political initiatives, and making legal decisions. Media messages about the causes of crime, the nature of violent criminality, and the most effective strategies for addressing crime-related problems are especially influential because they address topics with which most citizens have little or no direct experience.
Craig Haney, Media Criminology and the Death Penalty, 58 DePaul L. Rev. 689 (2009)
What are we criminal defense lawyers to do?
Perception is too often reality for people. Myths matter as they influence how people, jurors, judges, legislators, the public, make decisions about our clients and the criminal justice policies that apply to our clients. However, Albert Einstein addressed the complexity of the contradiction between facts and myths this way, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
Recognizing these destructive myths, our opportunity is to proactively communicate the facts to people who make decisions about our clients and laws and provide the rest of story, the full context.
When representing clients, Craig Haney advises criminal defense attorneys to provide a counter narrative for our clients that “contextualizes behavior and explains the forces and factors that have helped to shape a defendant’s life course.” Id. at 740.
That’s our opportunity. That’s what we do client by client. It is why good public policy advocacy and good lawyering make a difference for clients.