Ted Gest, TCR contributor and president of Criminal Justice Journalists, examines the 2008 DOJ crime victims survey and finds public safety still eludes many Americans.
The Justice Department's new crime victimization survey released today shows a remarkable flattening of crime rates in the last five years. Just about every category has dropped in recent years, and two kinds of crime–rape/sexual assault and motor vehicle theft–fell sharply last year.
The totals are estimates. But because they are based on interviews with nearly 78,000 people, they include the millions of crimes not reported to law enforcement. The one major category not included in the victimization survey is homicide; but that, too, is declining, says the FBI. Not one category in the victimization survey got close to showing an increase; the closest was home burglary, down only about two percent.
Should Americans feel safe, given these statistics? Looked at one way, they shouldn't. In a nation of just over 300 million, an annual figure of 20 million serious crimes represents a fairly high proportion of people who have been victimized. In the latest international comparison available, for 2003-4, the U.S. victimization average was slightly higher than that of 15 major nations.
However, crimes are not evenly distributed. The survey shows that two groups, African-Americans and low-income people, are victimized much more often than are whites and higher-income residents. For violent crimes, there were 25.9 victimizations per 1,000 African-Americans, compared with 18.1 for whites and 16.4 for Hispanics. Among 1,000 households of income $7,500 or less, there were 204 victimizations compared with 133 for households with income $75,000 or more. Also, gender plays a big part in whether the offender and victim know each other. About 70 percent of violent crimes committed against women are by people they know, compared with only 44 percent of male victims.
Firearm use in crime has remained steady, implicated in fewer than 10 percent of violent crimes in the last decade. Guns are used in about 24 percent of robberies, however.
Will the good news continue? The national economy may be the big factor in whether crime stays flat or starts to climb. Since the latest data are from 2008, before the financial crunch hit hard, some observers say they will not be surprised if the figures for 2009 show an upswing in property crimes. Any indication of that might be apparent at year's end, when police departments issue their totals of reported offenses.