Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How Safe Are We? Crime Writer Compares Stats, Then and Now

12/16/2011 @ 4:40PM |1,217 views

I have heard any number of mothers say we have to protect our children as the world is a lot less safe than when we grew up and that it is the internets fault, lets all keep it in perspective! Aivars Lode

I write about crimes, real and fictional, so my view of the world is a bit off-center. Perhaps it’s a natural outcome of spending months at a time in courtrooms taking notes on sensational murder cases.
It’s dramatic, sure, but it forces one to confront head-on a world most of us prefer to relegate to the things-that-happen-to-someone-else category. Once you know the families the worst has happened to, it’s not so easy to distance oneself. The truth is that they’re often not that different from the rest of us.
The result is that I tend to drive friends and family a bit crazy, warning them to be careful. My friends, thanks to my constant nagging, know all the cautions, from parking under lights in lots and having their keys ready when they leave to never, ever, ever getting in a car with a would-be abductor. One of my homicide detective friends is so adamant that he’s told his wife and daughter to turn and run even if an assailant has a gun. “The truth is that the guy’s probably not a crack shot,” my friend explains. “But if you get in the car, the statistics aren’t good.”
So, I have a tendency to be a worrier, I admit.
Yet I’ve never felt that way close to home. I live in a quiet Houston suburb, a bedroom community with tree-shaded streets where kids ride bikes and joggers dominate the sidewalks mornings and evenings. Sure, I know crimes occur all over the country, all over the world, including in neighborhoods like mine, but it’s always felt like a bit of a haven to me. I appreciate the fact that a big crime in my neighborhood is a kid knocking down a mailbox — that was, until last week, when I drove home from the local Kroger and noticed a hand-lettered sign on a wooden post stuck into the grass at a corner that read: “Anyone with information on the robbery/assault that occurred here, please call….”
For a moment, I felt puzzled. Was that real? Was someone mugged just blocks from my home? That night I watched the local news including video of a well-dressed middle-aged man driving a white Prius stealing delivered packages from front porches.
Over the years, I’ve heard often that tough economic times breed crime, and as I watched the news, I wondered what our will-it-ever-end recession is doing to crime rates.
So before bed, I did what many of us do when confronted with a question, I Googled, typing in: U.S. CRIME RATE STATISTICS PAST AND PRESENT. What I discovered was the opposite of my assumption; despite the anti-Santa who was stealing presents, despite the nightly headlines and news footage that makes us question our safety, despite the anomaly of a mugging in my quiet neighborhood, I was relieved to discover that we’re safer now than we were a decade ago. As a matter of fact, the overall crime rate in 2010 wasn’t much different than it was in 1968. Did you know that? I didn’t.
Looking at the trends, rates climbed from 1960 through 1990 and then began to fall. In fact, according to the United States Crime Index, rates per 100,000 inhabitants have declined nearly every year since 1990, both violent and non-violent offenses. In 1970, for instance, the overall crime rate was 3.984. Twenty years later in 1990, it hit 5.820. Fast forward two more decades, and by 2010 the figure had plummeted to 3.345. The only troublesome statistic I came upon was that a larger percentage of the crimes are violent now than they were in 1968. Then: 298.4. Now: 403.6. Yet in 1990 it was a whopping 731.8, so even that’s headed in the right direction.
Why? A bit more scouting, and I read a lot of theories, from the aging of baby-boomers (crime is predominantly committed by the young), to harsher sentences and more people in prisons, to better policing. There were also theories about cocaine fueling the rise in crime rates through the Eighties and into the Nineties. The bottom line, it appears, is that no one truly knows why rates are lower, at least not definitively.
Was this drop in crime reported and I missed it? It could be. Perhaps it was simply lost in the murders and mayhem that dominate the headlines. Whatever the situation, I was glad to read it now, to understand that despite my perception that the U.S. is a more dangerous place than decades ago, it’s truly not.
The gloomy economic environment and our high unemployment rates are admittedly painful on many levels, but it’s at least comforting to learn one result isn’t higher crime rates. That said, will I stop locking my doors and parking under lights? No. But it’s nice to know that statistically I’m safer now than I was twenty years ago.

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