The trial of George Zimmerman that captured national headlines recently suggested a climate of violence in the nation as the trial documented the killing of a teenager by a neighborhood watchman. News stories about local crimes — a shooting, a burglary, an assault — reinforce the image in the minds of Americans that crime is out of control. Some politicians use these incidents to claim crime is rising. Not surprisingly, they then push their own agendas — more regulations on guns, less regulation and more use of guns, the wisdom or folly of "stand your ground laws," declining morals among young people, racial hatred, etc.
The problem is, the image of a nation beset with crime doesn't quite fit reality. In fact, crime rates today are much lower than they were 30 years ago. The overall crime rate is less than 60 percent of what it was in 1980. Despite the growth in population in the United States over the past 30 years, there are actually fewer crimes committed now than in 1980.
In fact, crime rates are lower across the board than in the past. Today, the murder rate is half what it was in 1980. The rate for forcible rape was nearly 43 incidents per 100,000 in 1992. Today it is 27. The rate of robberies reached a high in 1990 with 639 incidents per 100,000 people. Today, the rate is nearly half that. Non-violent crime, such as burglary or theft, also has declined. The number of burglaries fell from 3.7 million in 1980 to 2.2 million.
Explanations for the drop vary. One theory is that the decline in crime rates is due to the aging of the U.S. population. That means fewer young people are around to commit crimes. It is true that people under age 19 constituted 35 percent of the population in 1975, while today that percentage is 24 percent.
Another theory is that crime has dropped because of the explosion in the prison population. The number of Americans in prison has more than doubled in the past 20 years. In other words, those who could be out committing crimes are inside prisons instead.
Still another is that society's investment in law enforcement has paid off. In 1982, state and local governments spent less than $100 per capita on police protection. By 2007, that figure had jumped to $279 per capita.
Whatever the explanation, the bottom line is that, overall, Americans are safer than we were 30 years ago. Clearly, there are parts of the nation that are less safe than others. Moreover, a crime rate masks the pain that one violent crime causes individuals and families affected by it. And even if statistics are lower, the feeling of being violated is still real when you find your home has been burglarized while you were away. Nevertheless, the odds that we will be affected by violent or non-violent crimes are much lower today than in the past.
For those with political agendas regarding crime, it might be disappointing to hear that their fear-mongering is not based on facts. But for the rest of us, it should let us sleep better at night.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.