Sunday, May 14, 2017

That was some uptick

I wasn't going to post again this soon, but this morning I read an interview with Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of a well-received new book on the 1971 uprising in Attica prison.  It reads
[interviewer] You point out not only that the war on crime was a bipartisan effort — it started with L.B.J. but grew under Nixon — but also that it wasn’t really in response to a crime uptick, as many Americans thought at the time. [Thompson] It was pure rhetoric. It was a policy choice, not a crime imperative. . . . The civil rights movement comes North, and all of a sudden, Johnson starts to sound like Bull Connor, right?

Here is a graph of the murder rate from 1960-75:

Here is motor vehicle theft, which is measured pretty accurately because there are car registration records.

For other crimes, there's more possibility of changes in reporting rates, but here are a couple of others.

Finally, here is the number of prisoners in state and federal institutions:

Putting these together, there was a large and sustained increase in crime beginning in about 1960, while the number of people in prison declined between 1960 and 1972.  Of course, Thompson is right to say that  the "War on Crime" was a policy choice; maybe there were better choices that could have been made.  But to say it "wasn't really in response to a crime uptick" is like saying the New Deal "wasn't really in response to an unemployment uptick."

Sources:  FBI Uniform Crime Reports 
Historical Statistics on Prisoners in State and Federal Institutions,Yearend 1925-86


  1. If the graph for number of prisoners starts at zero, one can see that there were relatively small changes over the 16 years from 1960 to 1976.

    1. I'd definitely like to see those figures normalized by population. Just looking at the raw figures, I wouldn't say that a net increase of 15% is small, especially when you break it down into an 18% drop from the high point in 1961 to the 1968 low, then a 50% increase over the 1968 figure by 1976. But I would also like to see the data from the previous ten to fifteen years -- no point going back further because WWII likely changed things a lot.

  2. Yes, it would have been better to make the y-axis start at zero--I just used the default without thinking about it. But whether you characterize the decline as large or small, the general point is the same: crime increased while the number of prisoners declined, so it isn't surprising that people turned to a "get tough" approach.