by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The two-decade-long crime decline appears to have conclusively plateaued, a new report released Monday shows, as the share of Americans who faced a violent crime remained between 0.9 and 0.6 percent for the 12th year running.
Data from the latest National Crime Victimization Survey, a nationwide survey conducted annually since 1993 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, show that roughly 1.2 million Americans, or 7.3 per 1,000 adults, report having been violently victimized in the past year. That’s down from 8.6 per 1,000 in 2018, the first year to see a significant uptick in decades.
But the bigger picture the new data paint is of a stalled-out crime decline. After falling precipitously from 1993 through the mid-2000s, the violent victimization rate has hovered around 8 per 1,000. And while the NCVS does not stretch that far back, other major sources of federal data—namely the FBI’s uniform crime reports—suggest that violent crime today remains elevated above where it was in the early 1960s, before the great crime wave of the 1970s and ’80s.
The so-called great American crime decline has been a key part of criminal justice reform rhetoric for decades, with advocates arguing that plummeting crime means that America can ratchet back incarceration and police spending. But the plateau in crime, now a well-established phenomenon, complicates that picture, suggesting that reform efforts may have slowed the crime decline, or that added reform could actually drive violence up.
The crime decline is one of the most significant—and hotly debated—facts of modern criminology. Criminologists do not agree on what caused this drop—demographics, policing tactics, incarceration, and even pollution may have played a role.
What is agreed on is the scale of the drop. As the FBI data show, crime rose precipitously through the early 1990s, with violent crime peaking in 1992. Since then, however, rates of violence fell just as precipitously.