The NCVS isn’t without its flaws, but that’s true of any attempt to accurately measure crime in the United States. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for example, come directly from police agencies. But that data doesn’t count unreported crimes and it relies on police agencies to accurately report what crimes are reported to them, which isn’t always a certainty. The NCVS goes around police and gets its data from phone surveys. But that means it relies on the memories of victims and on the honesty of survey respondents. The NCVS tends to find higher crime rates, because not all victims report their crimes.
Taken together, the two sets of data are most effective at identifying trends. And both show that crime in the United States remains at its lowest levels in decades. As we discussed here at The Watch, the FBI’s UCR data for 2015 (released last month) showed an uptick in homicides that looked scary as a percentage but only because crime has dropped so much. Last year still saw the third-lowest violent crime rate since 1970 and the sixth-lowest homicide rate in 50 years.
The NCVS survey only confirms the good news. Yes, there are a number of large cities where violent crime — and homicide in particular — has spiked, but the NCVS survey is yet more evidence that those figures stem from localized problems, not indicative of some national trend that demands immediate policy remedies.
The NCVS survey should also put an end to the argument that some national crime wave demands that we shelve criminal-justice reform. There has never been much convincing evidence for the claim of a causal link between the crime rate and punitive sentencing, aggressive policing or other “tough on crime” policies, anyway. But the “we can’t reform the system now because crime is soaring” argument falls even flatter if it turns out that the crime rate is not in fact soaring, but coasting along at the same historically low levels at which it has been for several years now.