Violent crime in the U.S. decreased slightly in 2017 following two years of dramatic spikes in murders in many major cities, according to new data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report.
Nationally, the violent crime rate in 2017 fell by 0.9 percent over 2016, and the murder rate decreased 1.4 percent. Property crime continued a more than 20-year decline. Aggravated assault and rape rates both increased, by 2.2 and .3 percent, respectively.
Meanwhile, a study released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice looked at crime in 30 major U.S. cities for the first half of the year; it too found the numbers coming down. The new figures suggest that violent crime has at least plateaued and may be on its way back down.
In 2015 and 2016, violent crime in the U.S., driven by scores of murders in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, and D.C., began to rise after more than two decades of decline. It was the first time since 2005 and 2006 that the U.S. experienced a consecutive year-to-year rise in violent crime.
The sudden reversal led to fierce debate. On one side, advocates of tougher policing and harsher sentencing laws, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump, warned that rising crime threatened to wipe out those hard-won gains in safety. On the other side, criminal justice reformers said the rise may merely be a blip in a long-term downward trend and that it shouldn't discourage ongoing efforts to reduce mass incarceration.
In speech today to law enforcement in Alabama, Sessions credited his Justice Department's increased prosecutions for helping to bring the crime rate down:
Our good friends at the Brennan Center project that the murder rate in our 30 biggest cities will decline by 7.6 percent this year—bringing the murder rate back down to 2015 levels in those cities.
And I am announcing today the FBI will release its annual Uniform Crime Report, which will show that violent crime and murder have stopped rising and actually declined in 2017. That is something that we all should celebrate.
Those are the kind of results you get when you support law enforcement. Those are the kind of results we get when we work together.
Sessions has been a vocal critic of Obama-era investigations of unconstitutional policing, and in a speech last week he explicitly blamed consent decrees put in place to reform police departments in Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore for the precipitous rise in violence in those cities.
"There's a clear lesson here: If you want more shootings and more death, then listen to the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, or antifa," Sessions said. "If you want public safety, then listen to the police professionals who have been studying this for 35 years."
In other words, any rise in crime is a result of policies Sessions opposes, and any decreases are a result of those he favors, even if, as The Baltimore Sun reported, he misstated rape statistics and erroneously attributed the consent decree restricting unconstitutional policing in Baltimore to the ACLU. (It was, in fact, finalized by the Justice Department.)
Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, tells Reason it was "galling to see" Sessions cite national crime data to support his position on policing.
"Ascribing credit of any crime increase or decrease to a single year and a half of federal policy is just beyond belief, but here we are," Grawert says.
Grawert notes that, according to the FBI data, murder decreased in cities with more than 1 million people by 8 percent in terms of raw numbers.
"If you pull back from the academic debate about what's causing crime to rise and fall and focus instead on the political debate over what causes violence in America, one would take this as rebuke to the 'American carnage' theory that cities are out of control and only Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump can save them," he says.
There are more concerning trends buried in the numbers, as Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff has noted on Twitter. Outside of cities with more than 1 million people, the murder decline was largely driven by non-urban areas; murder in the aggregate went up in urban areas.
Conservative criminal justice reform groups also applauded the new crime numbers and said it reinforced their position that recent sentencing overhauls in red states have been largely successful in reducing crime.
"Criminal justice reform skeptics will undoubtedly attribute this good news to being 'tough on crime,' but don't be fooled—there is scant evidence to support this theory," says Mark Holden, the Koch network's point man on criminal justice reform, in a statement on today's report. "The reality is, data-driven prison and sentencing reforms, like those that have passed in places like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina, reduce crime while giving people opportunities to transform their lives."
Bonus: Look at this painfully bad graphic the FBI included for its data on clearance rates for crime.