A new report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reviews some of the recently released data on 2021 crime rates. Once again, it seems like the authors are overselling the fact that crime rates are lower than the 1990s crime peak, although their findings are similar to what I found when I analyzed the data last month. Indeed, crime rates are lower than they were in the 1990s. But keep in mind that the 1990s saw a historic crime peak. If “success” means having crime rates that are lower than the historic peak, then that’s a pretty low bar for success. It’s almost like saying that the 2008 recession wasn’t that bad because it was still better than the Great Depression.
California’s violent crime rate was at an all time high in 1992 at a rate of 1,115 violent crimes per 100,000 popuation. It has steadily decreased since then, reaching a low of 392 per 100,000 in 2014. What the PPIC report fails to mention though, is that violent crime (mostly driven by aggravated assaults) has been increasing every year since 2014. They actually claim that violent crime rates have been “stable” over the last decade, but I disagree. Based on my own analysis of the data last month, it appears that violent crime rates have been on the rise since approximately 2015. This seems to be largely driven by increases in aggravated assaults, though increased rates for rape and homicide also played a role. There were also modest increases in property crime, which were mostly driven by increases in auto theft.
It appears that violent crime in California is on an upward trend. In 2020 (the latest nationwide statistics available), California’s violent crime rate was higher than the national average and ranked 16th nationwide for violent crime. In just one year (from 2020 to 2021), California’s violent crime rate increased by 6.0%, from 440 to 466 crimes per 100,000 residents. Aggravated assaults increased by 8.9%, rapes increased by 7.9%, and homicides increased by 7.7% (interestingly, robberies fell slightly by 1.9%). If you compare these numbers to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the increases are even more shocking. From 2019 to 2021, homicides jumped by a cumulative 41.2%, and gun-related homicides surged by 52%. Aggravated assaults also rose by 18%, and gun-related aggravated assaults jumped by 64%. Interestingly, robberies actually decreased by 15.8% during the same time, but robberies with a firearm increased by 0.4%.
From 2020 to 2021, property crime rates also increased by a modest amount (2.4%), but the rates for individual property crimes varied. Most noticeably, auto thefts increased by 7.6% from 2020 to 2021 (a cumulative increase of 28.4% since 2019), while larceny rates increased by 3%. Nonetheless, burglary rates drove down the total property crime rate, as they decreased by 5.8% from 2020 to 2021 (a cumulative decrease of 9.7% since 2019).
While property crime and violent crime rates both increased in most of California’s counties, there are a few geographical trends to note. For violent crime, counties near California’s southern coast and border (Imperial, Orange, San Diego, and Ventura Counties) saw the lowest rate (305 violent crimes per 100,000 residents), while the San Joaquin Valley saw the highest rate (640 violent crimes per 100,000). Regarding property crime, the Sierra Region had the lowest rate (1,603 per 100,000 residents), while San Francisco had the highest rate (2,718 per 100,000).
It is true that overall crime rates in California are lower than the historic crime peak in 1992. However, this does not mean that crime is still on a downward trajectory. When looking at more recent years, it appears that violent crime (including aggravated assault, homicide, and rape) has been increasing for almost a decade at this point, as well as auto theft. While it might be easy to downplay this fact with the statement “crime is lower than the historic crime peak,” keep in mind that these crimes are life-changing for victims and their families. Murder victims are deprived of their basic human right to life, and their families suffer tremendously. Victims of aggravated assaults may incur severe psychological trauma, permanent injuries, or nearly die as a result of their injuries. Victims of motor vehicle theft are harmed if they cannot afford a new car and can no longer commute to their job.
To summarize, just because overall crime rates are down does not mean that our communities are safer. To lump all crime into one measure and say that “crime is decreasing” presents an incomplete and inaccurate view of reality. For a more nuanced understanding, it is important to distinguish different types of crime based on the harm that they cause.
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