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Another Voice: Distortion of crime statistics is counterproductive

By James E. Sutton

Donald Trump’s Republican convention speech painted the United States as a scary place, plagued by out-of-control crime, gang members sneaking across the border and illegal immigrants offending with impunity. This is a distorted view.

FBI statistics show that crime rates have declined significantly since the 1990s. Trump correctly noted that violent crime increased from 2014 to 2015, but a one-year fluctuation does not negate the fact that crime rates have hovered near historic lows in recent years. Nor does it constitute an epidemic.

Trump’s campaign manager dismissed these points, implying that the FBI cannot be trusted. However, criminologists also turn to the National Crime Victimization Survey and additional independently collected data. The general trends shown by FBI statistics and other data sources have been remarkably consistent over the years.

As crime rates plummeted in recent decades, survey respondents nonetheless reported that crime was going up. People tend to idealize the past and assume that the present is worse, despite data suggesting otherwise. This is called pessimistic bias.

These skewed perceptions are no doubt shaped by fearmongers and “conventional wisdoms,” which are inherently subjective sources with tenuous reliability for drawing conclusions about broader society.

Trump’s speech asserted that immigrants are largely to blame for crime. In fact, the research has shown that legal and illegal immigrants actually have lower rates of offending when compared to native-born Americans.

Trump also touted building a wall to keep gang members out, yet nearly all of the gangs harming our communities are homegrown. Immigrants who are in gangs typically join upon arriving in the United States, usually in response to being marginalized by mainstream society or victimized by existing gangs.

These skewed views are problematic because they deflect attention from the true nature of crime. Building walls will not curb cybercrime by global offenders, and misperceptions distract us from discussing offenses such as white-collar crime that cause more damage to society.

In a speech focused on crime and terror, no mention was made of sexual assault, domestic violence and similar acts that rank among our most pervasive violent crimes. Victims of these offenses are typically terrorized by people they know, and their experiences are obscured by crime discussions rooted in xenophobia and stranger danger.

Those of us who have been victims of crime know firsthand that it is traumatic, regardless of whether the rates are going up or down. Crime is indeed worthy of our attention, but distortions are counterproductive.

James E. Sutton, Ph.D., is associate professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

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