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Throughout the pandemic, the news has been saturated with stories about rising crime. This phenomenon has played out across the United States, and fear of crime has become almost as strong for some Americans as fear of the pandemic. But are these fears well-founded? Is crime truly rising in the United States, and if so, are the rates significantly different from historical numbers?

The truth is that crime is rising, but pundits often omit the point of reference. Crime dropped precipitously after the 1990s, a fact often obscured by analysts and politicians. As a result, Americans often don’t understand that the crime rate is still comparatively low. 

It is important to acknowledge that crime is rising, and there is plenty of data to support that claim. The national murder rate has risen 30%, and the overall rate of violent crime is also up. When analysts and politicians talk about a rise in violent crime, they aren’t just making things up. These crimes have a real impact on American lives, even if it is important to think about the scale. 

The prime suspect in the case of rising crime is the Covid-19 pandemic, which dramatically changed the social and economic situations of many Americans. Many who had previously lived stable lives found themselves on the edge. While many college-educated, knowledgeable workers found they had more money than before, many lower-wage workers discovered the opposite. For many with little education and little access to income during 2020, their lives had been turned upside down. These forces can lead people who had previously had relatively stable situations to turn to crime. 

Pew Research found that violent crimes per 100,000 people fell from 747.1 in 1993 to 379.4 in 2019.

Although the rise in crime is real, it is important to consider which point it is rising from. Crime has been falling across the country for decades. Pew Research found that violent crimes per 100,000 people fell from 747.1 in 1993 to 379.4 in 2019. The drop in crime over the past few decades has been massive and unprecedented. John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, believes that the drop in crime is due to increases in incarceration. “Incarcerating violent people has a big effect on violence,” he said. “But most people we incarcerate aren’t violent.”

The recent increases in the rate of crime have not come close to making up the drops over the past few decades. However, the general public still believes there is as much crime on the streets as ever. Studies have found that Americans consistently believe that crime is rising even in times when it is falling. That indicates that the media has an effect on the public’s perceptions of crime. It also shows that humans are often biased towards fear in a way that can overwhelm facts and statistics. The reality is that crime has been falling dramatically over the past few decades, but a once-in-a-generation pandemic has caused a local uptick. Sometimes, the truth about crime is difficult to swallow.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.