- 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.