Violent crime trends appear muddled

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by Lex Alexander
Greensboro News & Record
November 20, 2006

Is that a storm cloud on the horizon or just morning fog? Where violent crime is concerned, we can’t tell yet, says a study released by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children. It notes a slight increase in crime between 2004 and 2005 but cautions against overreaction.

The report directly contradicts concerns recently expressed by many of the nation’s police chiefs. Some cities, such as Orlando, Fla., and Trenton, N.J., recently have hit all-time highs in homicides.

An October report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research agency for law enforcement, speaks of a “gathering storm” of crime and suggests that moderate overall trends might be disguising large increases in some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities. The forum’s executive director, Chuck Wexler, writes that waiting to see whether recent increases, however small, are a trend or just a blip “would be like having a pandemic flu outbreak in a number of cities, but waiting to see if it spreads to other cities before acting.”

The study notes a 2 percent increase from 2004 to 2005 in arrests for violent crime, but finds decreases in such other serious crimes as arson and motor-vehicle theft.

And the slight violent-crime increase comes after more than a decade of steep decline, the report notes: “An American’s chances of being the victim of a violent crime are still lower than at any point since the 1970s.”

Put another way, it says, the growth in the juvenile violent-crime arrest rate between 2004 and 2005 would have to continue for another 19 years to reach its 1994 high, when the decline began.

Greensboro’s experience appears to parallel the national trend, Sgt. Mike Loy of the Greensboro Police Department’s youth division, said. He did not have specific numbers.

The department’s Crime Analysis section reported 288 juvenile offenses in 2006 through Nov. 1, compared with 309 juvenile offenses during the same period in 2005.

Violent crime peaked in 1991 at a rate of 758 crimes per 100,000 Americans, but the rate had fallen almost 40 percent by 2004.

Researchers believe many factors contributed to the drop, among them more prisons and longer sentences; improved economic and housing conditions; and better policing.

But they cannot say to what extent each factor contributed to the drop.

The Chapin Hall researchers say the increase in violent crime among juveniles between 2004 and 2005 is attributable entirely to increases in robbery and homicide.

The report also says it would be a mistake to focus only on juvenile crime. It urges focusing on “young adults,” or everyone younger than 25. That age group, it says, accounted for 45 percent of violent-crime arrests, 50 percent of murder arrests and 62 percent of robbery arrests in 2005.