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Study: US crime rate drops to second-lowest level since 1990

Recently, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a gathering of law enforcement personnel that "violent crime is back with a vengeance."

"My best judgment is that, unfortunately, this is not a blip," he told the Alabama Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee conference. "I'm concerned that this might be a reversal of the progress we worked so hard to achieve, and we cannot accept that. We must fight back before this trend can grow."

Unfortunately, it's not clear what data he has to support that. The federal government's official crime statistics are kept by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but that agency's latest report goes only through 2015. It showed the rate of violent crime and murder in the U.S. to be declining from 1993 through that year.

Moreover, the prestigious Brennan Center for Justice has just released a study indicating that both murder and violent crimes are still declining in 2017. The Center's numbers show a slight increase in murder in 2015 and 2016, but the rate leveling off this year. Violent crime and the overall crime rate have reached historically low levels.

The Brennan Center used police data from the 30 largest cities in the U.S. to produce preliminary numbers for 2017. They found that the overall crime rate has reached its second-lowest level since 1990.

A Justice Department official defended the Trump administration's portrayal of U.S. cities as crime ridden. They say that violent crime rose by 3.1 percent in 2015, the biggest single-year jump since 1991. Its preliminary data indicated that the 2016 rate jumped even higher.

This doesn't seem to square with either the Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2015 tally, which has the violent crime rate lower in 2015 than in 2014. Nor is it consistent with the Brennan Center's data.

Why does it matter? Because fear is a tremendously strong motivator. When people are afraid of crime, they act differently than when they feel confident in their safety. They may be apt to throw the book at criminal defendants regardless of the evidence, for example, or they may support harsh measures like crackdowns and mandatory-minimum sentences.

The Brennan Center's "findings directly undercut any claim that the nation is experiencing a crime wave," according to its report. That paints a far different picture than the claim that high crime is a "dangerous permanent trend."

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