Recently in Studies Category

As noted in a CJLF press release last month, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) reported a 3% increase in violent crime in 2015 over 2014.  Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that its National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) showed no statistically significant change.  The lesson here is in the limitations of statistics.
As Bill noted earlier, today's FBI statistics report, Crime in the United States -- 2015, reports an 11% increase in the number of murders.  The murder rate (murders per 100,000 population), rose a slightly lower but still horrific 10%.  See Table 1A.

How unusual is this?  I dove into the historical data to find out.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics online data gives us murder rates back to 1960.  The rates range from 4.4 to 10.2 murders per 100k and are expressed to only one decimal place, so there is some rounding error, but they are good enough for a quick take.

Putting the rates in a spreadsheet and calculating the percent change for each year over the previous year, we see that only twice in over a half century has the rate jumped double digits in one year and once just a tad below that threshold.  Those three years were 1966-1968, when crime was rising at a horrific rate.

We have never had a double-digit drop, but several years come close.

The standard deviation for the changes is 5.9%.  This year's change is not quite two standard deviations from the mean, but it's close.  (The mean is near zero.) 

In plain English, this is a very unusual one-year jump, although not unprecedented.

New Study Shows ...

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The Onion reports:

Highlighting the gaping security holes that continue to persist 15 years after the attacks, an encouraging report released Thursday by radical extremist think tank the Caliphate Institute determined that the United States is no safer than it was before 9/11. "Despite efforts to expand digital surveillance and coordinate information-sharing among intelligence agencies, we discovered that the ability of the U.S. government to assess and eliminate potential terrorist threats has not substantively improved since September 11, 2001, which came as a shocking and welcome finding," said Selim Amir, chairman of the fundamentalist K Street research institute, which is staffed by prominent jihadist thinkers, visiting Sharia law scholars, and retired senior members of al-Qaeda.
The Onion is, of course, a satire publication.  The kernel of truth beneath the satire is how studies by organizations with agendas are so often uncritically reported as if they were done by neutral seekers of truth and as if they are the definitive word on the subject.
Thursday I noted a paper by Ernest Goss, et al. with a quotation that was purportedly from me but was completely false. I did not write those words, and the words report my study as finding the opposite of what I actually found.

If I received notice that a paper with my name on it contained a gross error, I would make the correction with scrupulous care and go over the correction with a fine tooth comb -- myself, not delegated -- to be very certain that the corrected paper was unimpeachably correct.  Evidently, Professor Goss does not share this view.  The "corrected" version remains a serious misrepresentation, either deliberately deceptive or with reckless disregard of the truth, which are morally about the same thing.

Just say no to marijuana, kids

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Now this is interesting....finally a scientifically backed article on the realities of marijuana use among adolescents.  

In comments to Bill's post on incarceration rates there is discussion of the issue of whether the higher (although shrinking) incarceration rate for African Americans is due to higher offending rates or discriminatory enforcement.  I did a quick search for research on this subject.
Update:  See follow-up post.

I have been battling the opponents of the death penalty for a very long time.  In that time, I have found that the intentionally misleading half-truth is their weapon of choice, and I spend a lot of time correcting the mistaken impressions they intentionally create.

However, the opponents are not above outright lying when they think they can get away with it.  A whopper has just come to my attention from the state of Nebraska, where the people are going to vote on whether to abolish or retain the death penalty.

Ernest Goss, Scott Strain, and Jackson Blalock have released a paper titled The Economic Impact of the Death Penalty on the State of Nebraska: a Taxpayer Burden?  The paper is sponsored by the anti-death-penalty campaign.  On page 23 we find this:

According to Scheidegger,48 "There is no credible evidence that replacing the DP with LWOP will result in significant added trial costs to the state due to defendants refusing to plead guilty and forcing prosecutors to meet their burdens at trial. The few studies that have been completed support the proposition that the threat of the DP does not increase plea bargain rates."

48Kent S. Scheidegger, The DP and Plea Bargaining to Life Sentences, Criminal Justice Legal Foundations, Feb. 2009, p. 10.
Note the quotation marks.  The authors are not saying that this is their interpretation of my results.  They are saying that these are my exact words and my interpretation.  This is a bald-faced lie.

Misreporting Science

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Robert Gebelhoff has this article in the WaPo on the misreporting of research.

One of the main problems is an effect that I have called "big story bias."  Journalists have an incentive to shade their reports in the direction of making the event more newsworthy.  This effect is not limited to stories about research.  We see it across the board. 

Researchers and their institutions, also, have an incentive to produce research that makes news.  Gebelhoff notes, "At the same time, researchers have become very good at playing with data -- such as shifting the length of their experiments or picking and choosing which variables to control for -- in order to come out with the results they want." 

Once more, with feeling, what "studies show" ain't necessarily so, and no, that is not an "anti-science" position.
As Bill noted earlier today, the theme of the opening day of the Republican National Convention is Make America Safe Again.  Is America unsafe?  Is a change of direction needed?  Consider two graphs (click on them for larger views):


Biased fact-checkers have assailed Donald Trump's emphasis on law and order, quoting experts citing the data in the first graph, as noted in this post.  Yes, crime has fallen since 1993.  It is half what it was at the peak, although still far above the golden years of the Ozzie and Harriet era.  You don't see an uptick at the end of the graph, do you? 

But look at the scale.  The official numbers are notoriously slow in coming out.  The scale ends at 2014.  What about the last year and a half?

The graph on the right represents crime in the first quarters of 2015 and 2016.  It shows violent crime up in every category and a nearly seven percent jump in a single year.  These numbers are from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a recent entrant in the crime statistics business.  Their only prior numbers are for 2014 v. 2015, which also showed an increase in all categories except robbery.  The major cities included cannot be assumed to be representative of the country, but they include the places where a large portion of our people live and work.

Seven percent in one year is a dramatic jump, and combined with a broad increase, although smaller, in 2015, it is likely not a fluke.  The major increase in California, noted here, a state that gone full bore in softening its approach to crime, further supports the idea that a general softening is a significant contributing cause.

While I might quibble with the wording of the theme, the renewed attention to law and order is appropriate and welcome.  We must not forget and repeat the errors of the past.

Donald Trump said "crime is rising," and PolitiFact rated that statement "Pants on Fire."  Eugene Volokh looks into it.

It seems that PolitiFact based its rating on the fact that crime has been on a long downward trend overall for the last 25 years.  Volokh writes,

I don't find this a persuasive defense. If the original PolitiFact post had said something like, "The violent crime rate has plummeted in the past 25 years, and while it may have been increasing in the last year and a quarter, that could easily be an anomaly, and our data on that are just preliminary and may not be sound," I would have thought it a sensible criticism of Trump's assertion. We should indeed be cautious about data that are limited to one year, or (as with the 2016 first-quarter data) to a subset of jurisdictions. There is some degree of short-term variation within any long-term trend; data from a year and change aren't really enough to tell whether 1) the long-term violent crime decline has been reversed, or 2) the year was just an anomaly and the decline will continue, or at worst, the violent crime rate will remain flat. For instance, the violent crime rate increased in 2005 and 2006, but those proved to be just small blips in an otherwise substantial decline.
The previous post noted the increase in homicide in California in 2015 over 2014.  The increase extends to every category of crime tracked except burglary, according the annual Crime in California report, also released today by the Bureau of Criminal Information and Analysis.  Annual changes in rates of reported crime per 100,000 population are:

Agg. Assault+8.1%
Auto theft+12.5%

The number for rape is also up sharply, but the extent to which that is an increase in crime versus a broadened definition of which sexual assaults are counted in the category is uncertain.

None of this should surprise anyone who has been paying attention.  After Realignment, we had numbers in the next few years that fluctuated but overall were considerably worse than the national numbers.  See this post.  Auto theft in particular spiked after Realignment made it a never-prison offense.  See here and here.  After Proposition 47, anecdotal information from law enforcement has been steadily rolling in.  Now we see confirmation in statewide numbers.

These soft-on-crime changes are disasters, and people are paying for them in blood and hard-earned property.

Murders Spike 10% in California

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The number of murders in California jumped nearly ten percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the annual Homicide in California report released today by the Bureau of Criminal Information and Analysis. A total of 1861 people were murdered in state in 2015, up from 1697 in 2014, a 9.7% increase.  Due to an increase in population, that works out to a 9.1% increase in murders per 100,000 population.
Time to bring out the elephant in the living room again.  As described by Wikipedia:

"'Elephant in the room' or 'Elephant in the living room' is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is going unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss.

"It is based on the idea/thought that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook."

Lisa Marie Pane and Don Babwin have this story for Associated Press.

CHICAGO -- Violent crimes - from homicides and rapes to robberies - have been on the rise in many major U.S. cities, yet experts can't point to a single reason why and the jump isn't enough to suggest there's a trend.

Still, it is stumping law enforcement officials, who are seeking a way to combat the problem.

"It's being reported on at local levels, but in my view, it's not getting the attention at the national level it deserves," FBI Director James Comey said recently. "I don't know what the answer is, but holy cow, do we have a problem."

You have to get down to the 15th paragraph before the Ferguson Effect is even mentioned, and it is immediately followed by a dismissive comment by the lacking-a-better-explanation expert.  The ongoing efforts to dismantle the highly successful tough-on-crime movement of the past several decades -- ignoring history in order to repeat it -- is not mentioned at all.

The anti-punishment and anti-police crowds (overlapping but not equal sets) have been on a roll for several years now.  When the results that persons of sense warned would follow do follow, the likely causal connection must be ignored or dismissed.

Another Hidden Cost of Crime

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Unfortunately, some people on the conservative side of the political aisle have jumped on the "let-em-out" bandwagon because they see that as a way to reduce government budgets.  Looking at costs to government alone, however, is not the correct way to measure costs of alternative courses of action to society as a whole.  When government fails in its fundamental obligation to protect people from crime, it imposes costs on the victims, a kind of "crime tax" that falls heavily, partly at random, but disproportionately on people of modest means.  Quantifying the cost of crime to victims is a tricky business in many ways, and one of the ways is that much of the cost is hidden.  Science Daily has this article on a hidden cost that has been overlooked to this point:

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Development Economics, researchers Professor Marco Manacorda (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Martin Foureaux Koppensteiner (University of Leicester) focused on evidence from the exposure of day-to-day violence in Brazil by analysing the birth outcomes of children whose mothers were exposed to local violence, as measured by homicide rates in small Brazilian municipalities and the neighbourhoods of the city of Fortaleza.

The team estimated the effect of violence on birth outcomes by comparing mothers who were exposed to a homicide during pregnancy to otherwise similar mothers residing in the same area, who happened not to be exposed to homicides.

The study found that birthweight falls significantly among newborns exposed to a homicide during pregnancy and the number of children classified as being low birthweight increases -- and that the effects are concentrated on the first trimester of pregnancy, which is consistent with claims that stress-induced events matter most when occurring early in pregnancy.

Evidence Mounts on Crime Spikes

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Many people   -- including law enforcement officials, bloggers here, and Heather MacDonald at the Manhattan Institute -- have been raising alarms that increasing numbers of innocent people are being needlessly victimized due to ill-considered policy changes (e.g., California's "realignment" and Prop. 47) and the "Ferguson Effect" of police holding back as they come under hyper-scrutiny.  Soft-on-crime apologists have responded that the data are too tentative and too anecdotal to draw such conclusions.  That answer did have some validity initially, but it wears increasingly thin as data accumulate.

In Chicago, the local variant of the Ferguson Effect might be called the McDonald Effect.  The number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight (who definitely do not lean conservative) have concluded that the numbers have reached the threshold that they can't be brushed off like that any more.  Rob Arthur and Jeff Asher have this post.

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