(Editor’s note: Nicole Lewis is joining The Fact Checker team. This is her first fact check.–Glenn Kessler)
Since becoming attorney general in February, Sessions routinely has warned of a violent crime wave sweeping the nation — spurred primarily by increased violence in major cities.
Sessions uses the alleged crime wave as evidence for the need to return to “law and order,” which President Trump has vowed to make a top priority during his presidency. As attorney general, Sessions has advocated for several policies aimed at preventing violent crime from continuing to rise, including tougher policing practices, reinstating mandatory minimum sentences for drug users, providing surplus military equipment to police departments, and a dismantling of “sanctuary cities.” In June, Sessions launched a new program to combat gun, gang, and drug violence in 12 cities across the United States.
At the same time, Sessions has lauded Miami-Dade County as an example for the rest of the nation — a major urban area that has reduced crime significantly since the “Miami Vice” days of the 1980s.
But Sessions, in his rhetoric and use of statistics, is being remarkably inconsistent. Let’s take a look.
First, let’s start with Sessions’s central premise: across the country, violent crime is back with a vengeance. Sessions has made the claim several times since taking office:
- “All of us who work in law enforcement want to keep people safe. That is the heart of our jobs; it is what drives us every day. So we are all disturbed to learn that violent crime is on the rise in America, especially in our cities. And that is what I want to talk about with you today.” (March 15)
- “As you have experienced right here in Memphis, violent crime is on the rise in America.” (May 25)
- “As all of you know first-hand, our nation’s violent crime rate is rising. In many of our urban areas, this increase is staggering.” (June 20)
To support his claim, Sessions cites an increase in violent crime from 2014 to 2015 as well as a preliminary report citing an increase in violent crime in 2016, according to a Department of Justice official.
In 2015, the total number of violent crimes increased by 3.9 percent nationwide, and the violent crime rate increased by 3.1 percent nationwide, according to data from the FBI. The increases represent the largest single-year increase in the violent crime rate since 1991, but it is hardly a staggering rise. Sessions uses the one-year increase and incomplete data for 2016 to make a sweeping statement about crime across the country. But, one year of data does not constitute a trend. Many criminologists recommend using a minimum of three years to understand crime trends and to account for small, but random changes in crime over short time intervals.
“Crime is at historically low levels,” said Nick Petersen, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Miami. “There may be small increases month to month and year to year, but there is a little random noise in the fluctuations.”
In 2006 and 2007, the national violent crime rate increased for the first time in nine years, but the spike did not usher in the return of high rates of violent crime. In contrast to Sessions, then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales did not make sweeping generalizations about the return of violent crime across the country. Instead, he noted that the increase was due largely to changes in specific areas.
When you zoom out to look at the violent crime rate over a three- to five-year period, the data show just the opposite of Sessions’s claim. Every year, the FBI compiles and analyzes crime statistics from police departments nationwide. Violent crimes include murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The violent crime rate shows the reported frequency of these crimes per 100,000 people.
In 1991, the nation’s violent crime rate peaked at 758 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. Since that point, violent crime across the country has declined. In fact, in 2015, the violent crime rate was lower than it has been in almost 45 years, and it is lower than it has been for most of the 2000s save for 2013 and 2014. The violent crime rate would need to more than double to reach the same levels of the 1990s, when violent crime peaked across the country.
To support his argument about a violent crime increase, Sessions routinely highlights crime in major cities like Chicago. On Aug. 16, while addressing the Justice Department’s policy on “sanctuary cities,” Sessions praised law enforcement agents in Miami-Dade County, which includes the city of Miami, for dramatically reducing the violent crime rate amid the alleged nationwide increase. In the same speech, he derided Chicago for its soaring crime rates. The comparison earned Sessions Four Pinocchios.
In 2015, Chicago recorded 478 murders, up from 411 in 2014 and 413 in 2013, and every murder factors into Chicago’s violent crime rate. Like most cities around the country, murders in Chicago peaked in the 1990’s, with a high of 943 murders recorded in 1992, and then declined by more than half. Overall, violent crime in Chicago is lower than it has been since the 1960’s. Miami-Dade, which has roughly the same population of Chicago, experienced the same decline in violent crime over the past two decades. Violent crime in Miami Dade reached record highs in the ’80s and ’90s. Since then, violent crime has declined. And this decline mirrors the national trend.
Sessions held up Miami-Dade’s crime reduction as “proof that the entire nation can do better.” Sessions employs the same tactic to dramatize crime in cities as he does to dramatize crime across the country. By zooming in on one city, like Chicago, and looking at violent crime rates over a short period of time, he can claim crime is rising.
“It is really easy to cherry pick the data point you want in order to make the claim that decades of progress is being rolled back,” said Ames Grawert, an expert on criminal justice issues at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Sessions is pinpointing cities and making the case that they are representative when they are not. If you look at any city crime is way down.”
A Brennan analysis of declining crime rates over the course of several decades shows the link between mass incarceration and crime reduction is thin. Instead analysts cite a multitude of factors — from increased economic prosperity to the increased use of crime mapping software like CompStat.
Sessions has also made similar claims about the national murder rate. From 2014 to 2015, the rate did in fact increase nearly 11 percent. But like the violent crime rate, the rate is at a historic low. To reach the same levels the murder rate hit at its peak in the 1980s, the rate would have to more than double.
Update, Sept. 7: Preliminary analysis of crime data from the nation’s 30 largest cities released by the Brennan Center for Justice further indicate that 2016 was a blip. According to the center’s overview of crime and murder data, 2017 is on pace to have the second-lowest violent crime rate of any year since 1990.
Update, Sept. 20: In an opinion article in Washington Times published Sept. 17, Ian D. Prior, principal deputy director of public affairs at the Department of Justice, decried this fact check as unfairly attacking Sessions “merely because the Post disagrees with the interpretation of the factual data.”
The Pinocchio Test
Sessions claims about crime across the country are a distortion of the facts. Nationwide, the violent crime rate and the murder rate are lower than they have been in almost 45 years. Violent crime and the murder rate increased slightly from 2014-2015, but the one-year increase does not qualify as a national trend.
Sessions applies the same distortion in his spotlighting of crime in major cities. Sessions routinely highlights an increase in violence in Chicago as evidence of the rising crime wave, but when viewed in conjunction with the national data, Chicago stands out as an outlier that is out of sync with national trends. In major cities across the country, violent crime has also dropped to historic lows. When Sessions lauds Miami-Dade County, he is implicitly acknowledging that crime rates actually have dropped dramatically since the 1980s.
Yet Sessions claims violent crime is “back with a vengeance,” and that it is “surging,” which is the result of a “staggering increase,” in crime in urban areas. With every dramatic assertion, Session is stoking American’s fears about crime and safety to advance a political agenda of “law and order.” Sessions earns Four Pinocchios.
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