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Spinning crime stats

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A common tactic among those who use studies to advance policy positions rather than to advance knowledge is on full display today. The tactic is to announce in advance that a study is going to be released, along with the announcer's interpretation (i.e., spin) on what the numbers show. The actual study is then withhheld until well after the newspapers for the following business day have been printed and distributed. In this way, no one else can comment specifically on the methodology of the study or alternative interpretations of the data during the same news cycle. By the time they have the actual report and time to read it, it's old news.

James Alan Fox of Northeastern University is supposed to release a study today of homicide rates, according to lots of stories in newspapers this morning. As of this writing, the study itself does not appear to be on the NEU website. It was not linked in any of the numerous stories I read, so in all likelihood it either was not given to the reporters at all, or it was given to them "embargoed," i.e., on condition they wouldn't give it to anyone else. The study, we are told, will show an alarming rise in homicide rates among black teenagers, even while homicide rates nationwide were falling. Well, that isn't really news. We've pretty much known that.

Some reporters are savvy to this tactic, while others fall for it hook, line, and sinker.  This AP story simply reports Fox's predictable spin and quotes one other kindred spirit. It's all about funding government programs, you see.

In contrast, Erik Eckholm of the New York Times gathered some contrary views in general, although the commenters obviously couldn't evaluate the unreleased study. 

But Bruce Western, a sociologist at Harvard, cautioned that the change in murder rates was not large and did not yet show a clear trend. Dr. Western also said that the impact of the reduction in government spending on crime control would have to be studied on a city-by-city basis, and that many other changes, including a sagging economy, could have affected murder rates.

This paragraph is followed by the statement, "Conservative criminologists place greater emphasis on the breakdown of black families, rather than cuts in government programs, in explaining the travails of black youths." Correct, although I'm not sure what conservatives he talked to. The next quote is from Alfred Blumstein.

Dr. Blumstein said that while federal cuts might have contributed to the rise in murders by black teenagers, "I think there are much more endemic problems going on."

"In the inner city, you have large numbers of kids with no future, hanging out together with a great emphasis on their street credibility," he said. "They'll go to great lengths to avenge an insult." Many of these teenagers do not stay in school, let alone join the Boys Clubs or other after-school programs.

Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn says part of the problem is homeland security soaking up budget from regular law enforcement.

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And what does Dr. Fox think might have caused this increase? According to today's WSJ, cuts in "law-enforcement programs and activities geared towards youth"

Are we talking about the widely discredited DARE programs here? Is there any data which shows cuts in youth programs of any sort result in higher crime rates? I'd like to see those studies.

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