Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Clearance rates" for serious crime disturbingly low

The national "clearance rate" for serious crimes in 2006 - i.e., the percentage of reported crimes solved, by police according to the new Uniform Crime Report - seems awfully low to me:
  • Nationwide in 2006, 44.3 percent of violent crimes and 15.8 percent of property crimes were cleared by arrest or exceptional means.
  • Of the violent crimes (murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault), murder had the highest percentage of offenses cleared at 60.7 percent.
  • Of the property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft), larceny-theft had the highest percentage of offenses cleared at 17.4 percent.
  • Eighteen percent of arson offenses were cleared by arrest or exceptional means.
It's no wonder many in the public don't feel safe if 55% of violent crimes and 84% of property crimes go unsolved! If 82% of arson victims never see the offender held accountable, sure, I'd be unhappy, too. The 60.7% clearance rate for homicides is especially troubling - that means 39.3% of killers literally get away with murder!

Politicians routinely point to UCR crime statistics to argue for longer and more punitive criminal sentences. But to me these numbers imply a different solution: Greater resources and focus on solving crimes and catching criminals in the first place.

If the national clearance rate for burglary is only 12.6% (and in the single digits in some Texas cities), then punishing the few burglars who're caught more harshly makes only a small dent in crime. A better strategy would be to put more investigative resources into solving a great percentage of burglaries.

When punishment is uncertain or even unikely, the economic model of crime (where punishments are considered the "price" of criminal conduct) break down - there's a "free rider problem," to use the economists' jargon, because most offenders don't actually pay the "price," i.e, the legislatively established punishment. That's a big reason the death penalty provides little deterrent. The sentence is imposed on less than 2% of convicted murderers, but nearly 40% of the time a killer will never face punishment at all.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor last year, New York corrections official Scott Christianson pointed out that 50 years ago, clearance rates for murder hovered around 90%. Indeed, one of the odd ironies in the last years has been that overall crime has declined, but clearance rates also declined over the same period. In other words, though fewer crimes are committed, police solve a smaller percentage of them. Christianson blamed the drug war for diverting police focus:

It's not that America's cops haven't been making arrests - in fact, their total annual arrests jumped from 3.3 million in the nation in 1960 to 14 million in 2004, a staggering number that helps to explain why the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world.

So, if reported crime has been going down and arrests have gone up, what accounts for the plummeting arrest clearance rates for murder, robbery, rape, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft?

Part of the answer must involve drug law enforcement - victimless offenses that aren't reported to the police or included as FBI Index Crimes. Instead of arresting suspects for burglaries and other serious reported crimes, cops today spend much of their energy going after illegal drugs. Their arrest rate for drug possession (especially marijuana) has shot up more than 500 times from what it was in 1965.

Bolstering that claim, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws crunched this year's UCR numbers to determine that more marijuana arrests were made in 2006 than any previous year, 829,625. Each of those arrests took officers off the street for about 2 hours, on average, to process offenders, mostly for minor possession cases. After they're arrested, they enter overstuffed local jails that already can't find room for more serious offenders.

This bizarre statistical phenomenon identified by Mr. Christianson - that crime is down even though police are solving fewer of them - explains in part why the public remains "downright paranoid" about crime. They read of police making more arrests than ever, jails stuffed full with crooks, and politicos touting "tuff on crime" solutions, but when crime happens to them or people they know it usually goes unsolved.

The Texas Legislature gave law enforcement an important new tool this year to help redirect police focus toward more serious crime - HB 2391 that allows (at the officer's discretion) citations instead of arrest for certain low-level misdemeanors including driving with a suspended license, small-spot possession. Some counties so far have refused to implement the new statute, but judging by these statistics, if they did it might help them devote more resources to these more serious offenses.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

The way I read that, it doesn't say anything about the percentage of any particular group of offenders, only offenses. Knowing what we know, it's likely that some portion of those guilty of the 40 percent uncleared murders are incarcerated for some other offense, or possibly victims of another murder. The data are disturbing, but they don't say what your trying to read them as saying.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Should the families of the 39.3 percent of murder victims be comforted by the fact that the offender might be dead or incarcerated for something else?

And how does your point mitigate the issue of declining clearance rates over past decades?

The guy who burglarized my house might well be arrested for something else down the line, but that doesn't make me feel less victimized or get my stuff back. I see your point, FWIW, but I don't think it's relevant to the question of how or why crime victims perceive law enforcement as ineffective.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 10:43

It disturbs me that people like yourself have manage to warp their thinking processes to the point that they accept and promote this travesty.

It's clear what is happening, yet you try to make others and yourself, apparently, believe that it's not.

Anonymous said...

Reported crimes are not investigated as throughly (if at all) as they were 46 years ago. Today the patrol officer/Deputy takes a report and moves on to the next call holding. There is a reason for this and the liberals can be thanked for it.

Anonymous said...

I'm anon 10:43. I'm also a statistician and I'm just pointing out that the data refer to offenses, not offenders. If you want to talk about victims, then you can talk about the families of the victims of 39.3 percent of murders.

Anonymous 11:18, what's warped about wanting people to speak carefully about data? I said that the trend is disturbing, but it doesn't say a damn thing about murderers.

Anonymous said...

Police Departments request large budgets to "fight crime". To get more money, they have to be sure the reported crime rate is sky high. A lot of time is spent recording crime statistics to justify getting more money.

Once the Police have the money, they use it to find and record more crime so they can get more money next year! Crime prevention is up to the law makers. All the law makers do is increase the penalties.

Once in a while the Police arrest someone for drug use or issue a traffic ticket. The Prosecutors now have something to do and City has an additional source of revenue.

This system provides no incentive to enhance Public Safety or crime prevention. Bottom line, this enormous boondoggle needs an overhaul!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Of course it says something about murderers, 12:50: It says that 39.3% of the time in 2006 they weren't arrested for the crime! Honestly I don't get your point.

Each of these crimes (at least violent and property crimes) has a victim. When the case isn't closed, the justice system has not provided closure to the victim in the incident. The fact that offenders might be arrested for something else later doesn't, to me, mitigate the declining clearance rates, it just means the crooks get to commit more crime before they're caught than in the past - that's a terrible outcome, and I still don't see how I'm misinterpreting it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that this isn't negative or that anything is mitigated. I'm saying that you are being imprecise in the way you are writing about the results in this report. It troubles me, as someone who works on similar reports. Roughly speaking, I agree with all of your main points. You could write about the offenders in x percent of offenses as opposed to x percent of offenders. The report only tells you about offenders in x percent of offenses. It doesn't seem like a big difference, but it is an important difference.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Please quote where I made that mistake. I've re-read the thing several times and don't see what you're critiquing - not trying to be obtuse, just not seeing it.

Editor said...

"that means 39.3% of killers literally get away with murder"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Gotcha - how about "killers literally get away with 39.3% of murders"? Still not too comforting, I'd say. Thanks for clarifying.

Anonymous said...

Criminals compare the costs and benefits of committing crime thus, when opportunity strikes they do their thing knowing full well the percentages of being arrested and charged are slim to none. Clearnace rates are systemic of a criminal justice system that finds its resources limited because they're thinned out doing other things besides solving crime. It would be my hypotheses that 9/11 has a lot to do with it. I could be wrong.

Anonymous said...

It's the numbers game; all a numbers game.
In order to get more federals funding, you need to show numbers. You don't get high numbers by solving complicated crimes or spending all week on one case, no matter how serious.
Your drug task forces were living proof of this.

Pat Rogers said...

The basic problem is that you can't subvert the electoral viability of America's poor urban minorities by locking up a few murderers. But you can by locking up and mass disenfranchising thousands and thousands of drug users.

The government has never been more than 20% effective at interdicting the drugs flooding our streets. Frankly, they don't want to. As long as they can mass incarcerate poor people enticed into drug dealing by a lack of any other economic opportunity they can keep Jim Crow in control of America.

Pure and simple, the drug war is how Richard Nixon and the Dixie-crats neutralized and subverted the Voting Rights Act. Florida 2000 proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

America has not had a valid election since the start of the Jim Crow drug war.

JT Barrie said...

Yes, the numbers are misleading. When people commit many crimes each week - as those with addictions to expensive drugs [cause lies 99.9% with drug policy] - they are bound to get caught eventually. While the percentage of overall crimes seems low the actual number of criminals caught is very high. Of course, this figure would be high no matter what our laws are or how serious enforcement is. If we didn't have drug prohibition we would have fewer addicts with high end addictions and fewer crimes committed. But you won't see any "crime victims' advocate" groups rushing to end the drug war. They love to exploit these victims for more big government instead of actually reducing government to reduce number of crime victims.
My best guess is that many - if not a clear majority - of property crimes go unreported. When police treat you with contempt [it's your own damned fault for being victimized....] and don't follow up your leads it becomes rather pointless to report crimes. I know that I haven't reported one or two crimes in my lifetime for that reason. And yes, I do have contempt for police - but do try to deal with those scoundrels in a civil and respectful manner. One of us has to!

Mike Smithson said...

Crime measured only by 4 categories is basically false reporting. Law enforcement spends more money and resources to fight the drug war without addressing it in statistical review. The public is dooped. Just one of the reasons for the founding of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

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