The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sessions’s first comments as attorney general inflated U.S. crime problem

Jeff Sessions — as of Thursday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions — wasted no time in demonstrating that he has embraced one facet of being part of the administration of President Trump: a willingness to stretch the boundaries of fact.

After being sworn in by Vice President Pence in the Oval Office, Sessions spoke to reporters.

Sessions sworn in as attorney general (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“We have a crime problem,” he said. “I wish the blip — I wish the rise that we’re seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip. My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk.”

During his presidential campaign, Trump took advantage of the subjective nature of “crime.” We have data about the commission of crimes in the United States, compiled by the FBI using reports from law enforcement agencies nationwide. But fluctuations in crime have a visceral effect, and the perception of increases can be a powerful political tool.

Sessions is correct when he says that there has been a rise in crime — within a certain context.

The homicide rate — which Trump has repeatedly and inaccurately said is at a four-decade high — did increase last year. (Crime rates are measured as the number of crimes per 100,000 people in population in an area, so last year’s homicide rate of 4.9 means that 4.9 killings were committed for every 100,000 people.)

That chart shows the blip — or, I’m sorry, the rise to which Sessions was referring. The jump from 2014 to 2015 was the first time the rate has increased since 2006. If it goes up again in 2016 — as seems likely, for reasons we’ll get to below — it will be the first time the rate has risen in consecutive years since … 2005 and 2006.

The homicide rate in 2015 was lower than when Barack Obama took office as president — and lower than the 45 years preceding that.

But crime and homicides are not the same thing, whatever Dick Wolf might tell you. The rate of violent crime more broadly — including assaults and rapes, etc. — has followed a similar pattern as that of killings over time.

But crime and violent crime are not the same thing either. The rate of property crimes was down in 2015, to its lowest level since 1966. This includes quality-of-life crimes such as burglaries and car thefts.

Is crime up? On the critical, powerful metric of homicides, yes. But it’s important to note that this increase isn’t even. The Brennan Center for Justice has projected the homicide rate for 2016 in the country’s 30 largest cities and predicts that it will again have increased. But that’s mostly because of a continuing spike in Chicago and one in Charlotte In fact, Chicago’s increase alone will account for almost half of the overall increase in these 30 cities.

All of which is to say that Sessions’s comments about crime demand some nuance. What’s more remarkable, though, is his assertion that the increase in crime (that is, homicide) is “a dangerous permanent trend.”

A permanent trend of increasing homicides would mean that everyone in the United States would eventually be killed. Let’s assume he’s not making that case — especially because that permanent trend would mean that he’d done a very poor job as attorney general.

Sessions does have extensive experience in the field of criminal law enforcement. He was a U.S. attorney in Alabama from 1981 to 1993 and then the state’s attorney general from 1995 to 1997. While he worked in the U.S. attorney’s office, the homicide rate in the state remained fairly flat, from 11.9 per 100,000 people in 1981 to 11.6 in 1993. (It had surged in Alabama in the 1970s.) While he was the state attorney general, Alabama’s rate dropped from 11.2 to 9.7, mirroring the broader national decline in the mid-1990s.

In other words, it’s not clear what makes Sessions feel as though he can predict a permanent long-term increase. He didn’t see one in his official capacity.

All of this is beside the point. The argument Sessions was trying to make was that his Justice Department would be tough and strong on crime, and he isolated one short-term increase in the crime rate to make that point.

Sounds an awful lot like his new boss.