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What Crime Surge

Photo by Phoebe T on Unsplash

Sacramento News & Review, one of the last supposedly “lefty” publications in the region just published an article (A winter of worry: Sacramento’s violent crime rate in January puts a chill on the community) decrying a recent “crime surge”--a constant worry among conservatives. Among other things, the article cites “independent researchers who have been tracking crime rates in California for nearly a decade acknowledge that overall violence in the state is on the rise.”

What Crime Surge?

But is crime really surging? Compilations of property and violent crime (from seem to disagree.

What Crime Surge?

True, these graphs predate the reported recent "surge," yet clearly, even with the more recent "surging" crime, overall crime has been on the decline for decades and any recent increases would have to approach 100% (they don't) for that decline to be interrupted. Unfortunately, the reporting about crime is generally distorted, too. The FBI's published crime stats do not include “white collar” crime like wage theft and violations of the Clean Water Act.

Despite recent protests from the Chamber of Commerce about pursuit of corporate criminals, "white-collar crime likely costs the American economy between $300 and $800 billion per year, while street crimes like burglary and theft cost around $16 billion." SN&R's hand-wringing is a very old rhetorical tactic, known as "straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel."

And thanks to reporting like SN&R's, despite the decades' decreases in arrests and crime, the county jail remains full. Why? (Pre-COVID-19) roughly 60% of those in County jail were not convicted of anything, except being unable to afford bail. That's right! Poverty is illegal in Sacramento! Meanwhile, the nationwide average jail population for those incarcerated without conviction is 20%, so Sacramento is three times more cruel than even the extraordinarily vengeful U.S. incarceration system.

How bad is U.S. incarceration? With five percent of the world's population, the U.S. is the world’s "champion" incarcerator, jailing 25% of the world's inmates--more in absolute or per-capita numbers than any other nation. The demographically-identical Canadians cage one-seventh as many people, per capita.

So is Canadian crime greater than in the U.S.? No, it's about the same. Similarly, medical treatment (rehab) has a far better cure rate for addiction, and costs about one seventh as much as incarceration. What we do now with addicts and the self-medicating mentally ill is like incarcerating diabetics because they’re dependent on insulin. It’s not just ineffective and expensive, it’s medieval.

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White-collar crime likely costs the American economy between $300 and $800 billion per year, while street crimes like burglary and theft cost around $16 billion.

Typically "crime surge" reporting supports more "tough on crime" talk from public officials. California Assemblyman Kevin Kiley gets a lot of mileage about his attempts to repeal Prop 47, which reduced some penalties recently. After all, who can be too safe? 

Yet recent attempts to reduce our prison populations may be just a sideshow in any "surge" of crime. For example, being confined in close quarters because of the pandemic may have some influence on the recent crime rise, and the Fed's report that 40% of U.S. population can't handle a $400 emergency without selling something or borrowing may be more important than how draconian are our punishments. But...the beatings will continue until morale improves.

The American public is supposed to be consoled by the law, which in its magnificent equality, forbids rich and poor alike from begging in the street, sleeping under bridges and stealing bread.

Incidentally, for some perspective about "police defunding" consider this: Between 1981 and 2017 U.S. population increased 42%. During that period, funding for the police increased 187.5%. Could there be room to reduce police budgets? Gosh, I wonder!

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Like the workman who has only a hammer, the U.S. apparently sees all problems as nails, and all crime as a good excuse to make punishment even more severe. Perhaps it's time to explore alternatives rather than wringing our hands about crime "surges" or our desire for infinite safety. Otherwise, it's not the land of the brave, and the home of the free, it's the land of the fearful, and the home of the incarcerated.

Mark Dempsey
It's Simpler Then It Looks