Monday, September 17, 2018

Crime And The Statistics That Clarify (Or Distort) The Issue

I started looking into statistics about crime for two reasons.

First, someone casually mentioned recently that there is clearly no racist bias shown by police since more white people are killed by police than black people. Sure, that’s true, but it’s not an honest truth. There are a lot of other factors to consider which make it almost impossible not to take the accusation of bias seriously

Second, I started looking into gang demographics in the United States. It turns out that quantifying the size of gangs is a really inexact science (in once city, estimates by various organizations ranged from 20,000 to 80,000). One of the reasons is that gang membership is often calculated with a “guilty by association” model.
  • Someone posts a picture on social media that includes a gang member. Police count all those in the picture as gang members.
  • People wears colors or sports-related clothing associated with a gang, and they are counted as being part of a gang. 
  • Some gangs claim local numbers (like area codes) as part of their brand; if someone innocently uses these numbers on clothing or vehicles, he is assumed to be in a gang.
  • I read one account of a young lady who dated a gang member. She was counted by local law enforcement as being in the gang though she had nothing to do with it. When she broke up and began dating another guy, the police listed the new guy as a gang member. 
This got me thinking about crime statistics. As the popular phrase goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. So just for the sake of being better informed, I started diving into the numbers. Unfortunately, as I discovered, the statistics can sometimes be the thing that creates the problem. Here, with no further ado, are some things worth knowing about crime in the United States.

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Almost every statistic we see about crime focuses on street crime, even though the impact of white collar crime is much more significant. This skews the discussion because focusing only on street crime will misrepresent who commits crimes overall, and what impact those crimes have More on this later.

The areas with the highest concentration of street crime look like a big smile around the coasts, from approximately North Carolina through Washington, with noticeable breaks in Mississippi (which has spots of high crime but is largely very low crime) SW Texas (Texas in general is lighter) and Southern California. If you work your way north of Arkansas and Tennessee, there is a path that moves up to Southern Michigan (with Kentucky as an exception) that has less crime than the coasts, but more than the Mid and Northern Plains states. Most of West looks good, with some spots of high crime in Northern Minnesota and Montana. Parts of Alaska get nailed also.

If you draw an East/West line starting at the top of North Carolina and going straight across the US, then head north when you hit California, between that line and the coast is where street crime generally concentrates.

Street crime correlates with the following. This is not causation; this is correlation. What I am looking for is patterns that show us the moral and social ecosystem in which crime flourishes. Nothing correlates perfectly - there are always exceptions to the rule - but our ecosystems nourish us in such a way that we default in one direction or another. Having said that, I believe there are ways to overcome our default tendencies (more on this at the end).

1. Age plays a huge role when looking at who commits street crimes.  Peak age crime involvement is under 25. Overall, 40% of arrests occur in the 15-24 demographic, even though they are only 14% of the population. Specifically, the peak is 15-19, and this is consistent everywhere in Western populations (though violent crime peaks a little later). The median age of arrest is under 30. The overwhelming majority of murders in 2016 were 17- 29 year olds:
  • 374 offenders were 13-16
  • 1,413 offenders were 17-19
  • 2,593 offenders were 20-24
  • 1,941 offenders were 25-29. 
The trend down that you see between 20-24 and 25-29 continues to go down. By the time you hit 40-44, which is the median white age, there were only 643 deaths. The more people who are young in a particular demographic, the more crime you will see. It just so happens that some demographics are much younger than others. I would like to see a study that compares the perpetrator rate by age across racial and ethnic demographics, but I have not found one.

2. A few people can really distort our sense of how many people are committing street crimes. A study in Sweden found that 1% of the population accounted for 63% of all violent crime convictions. Only 7% were chronic offenders. A study in Philadelphia in the 1940s that tracked 10,000 boys found that 6% of the boys accounted for half of all juvenile crimes, and 2/3 of violent crimes. A follow-up study forty years later found 7% accounting for 61% of crimes.

If we add what some have called the overpolicing of urban street crime and the different techniques and programs used in urban vs. rural environments, these all impact counts and record keeping. (Practical example: it appears that far more whites than blacks do drugs, and yet far more blacks are arrested.)

3. Family structure matters. Children from broken homes are 9 times more likely to commit crimes. Sociologically, there is an undeniable benefit from intact, stable families. If you look up maps that show crime rates, then layer them over with maps chronicling intact vs. broken homes (like I did), the correlation will leap out at you.

This does not reflect a lack of love or commitment from the parents, and it does not mean children in broken homes are fated to be criminals. It's just a reflection of the reality that parental oversight and influence matter. The lack of parental influence, particularly a father’s absence, correlates strongly with crime. The hurdles single parents faces as they attempt to oversee their children are significant, and it's in those unsupervised or overlooked moments that negative influences often seep in.

Also, while only 6% of married couples live in poverty, 16% of single-parent men and 31% of single-parent women live in poverty. And as we will soon see, poverty matters as a part of this discussion.

4. Family stability matters, according to the National Longitudinal Survey Of Youth. 
Research how kids respond to all these things. It builds a momentum in them that makes them ripe to enter a life of crime.

5. Street crime correlates with poverty. The large majority of poor people are not criminals, obviously, but poverty can lead to desperation and hopelessness, not to mention huge hurdles to navigate while trying to acquire tools that help people to break the cycle of poverty (education, transportation, jobs, etc). I suspect that many, many people in poverty did not want to enter into a life of crime, but were in a situation where they felt they had no choice. They are reluctant to enter in, and eager to get out. Unemployment and a lack of formal education also correlate with street crime; I suspect this is often interconnected with the problems and challenges presented by poverty.

 Once again, poverty does not necessitate criminality, but for kids growing up in poverty, the odds are not in their favor, no matter their race or ethnicity.

6. Violence declines significantly in communities where a higher percentage of people belonged to a congregation or attended church regularly. Chalk it up to peer pressure, the active work of God, or both; there is a correlation. A 6% reduction in delinquency correlates with a 1point increase on an index measuring religion’s importance and religious attendance. Every 1 point increase in a mother’s engagement correlates with a 9% decline in her child’s delinquency. As religious engagement increases, crime decreases in ways that exceed the success of government programs.

It’s worth noting that this study measures religiosity by attendance at church. This is not a perfect measure, but even this notes a difference between those who appear to take their religion seriously and those who do not. Only 5% of youth who regularly attend church (weekends and mid-week) have been arrested. For those who attend three times a month, the rate rise to 7%; for those who attend less than once a month, the rate is10%, which is virtually the same as those who never attend. 

This correlates more strongly with Catholicism than Protestantism in the United States, and Mormonism (Utah, in particular) has the strongest correlation of all.

7. Urban/metropolitan living vs. rural/non-metropolitan. Crime is simply higher in metropolitan areas, likely because of proximity to others who might be inclined to commit crime, as well as a breadth of opportunity (there are a lot of soft targets). This is exacerbated by a lot of alcohol and drug use in a concentrated environment that builds its own kind of negative momentum. Once again, the city is not the cause; the city correlates.

8. Gun ownership does not have a strong correlation when looking at a state-by-state comparison. In some states where ownership is high - Montana, for example - crime is really low. In other states, particularly in the South, crime remains really high.

9. Overall, more diverse communities have less crime. The more we isolate into racial and ethnic enclaves in the United States, the more crime appears to go up. For example, if whites live in predominantly white areas, they are 50% more likely to die from murder, gun violence, and drug overdoses.  This kind of statistic seems to hold true consistently. Intraracial crime is a much, much bigger deal than interracial crime, and that's across the board.

Considering all the factors, this is what I mean by a moral and social ecosystem. None of them alone or together make criminals of people, but when people are raised in a particular kind of environment, don't be surprised if they eventually follow the direction toward which they are being drawn.

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WHITE COLLAR CRIME (which isn't always easy to define).

It's hard to quantify the number of criminally guilty people in white collar crime. A lot of white collar crime is resolved by fines through things like class action lawsuits; after all, you can't jail a corporation, so money is next best punishment. In many of those class action lawsuits, corporations deny any wrongdoing while agreeing to pay massive amounts to victims. These no-fault settlements appear to be a means to grease the wheels of justice, not as a sign that no one is actually at fault.  Thus, many white collar offenders who break the law are not criminals in the eyes of the law, so they don't show up on a spreadsheet that helps us track crime.

White collar crime involving money is far more devastating than street crime in terms of the number of people impacted and the amount of money stolen, yet it rarely shows up when we talk about crime in the United States. According to “Statistical Analysis Of White Collar Crime” at the Oxford Research Encyclopedia Of Criminology:
  • Corporate crimes costs people $300-$600 billion dollars a year. Property crime, the street crime version, only accounts for $17.6 billion. 
  • Approximately 36% of business and 25% of households have been victims of white-collar crime, as opposed to 8% and 1% impacted by street crime.
  • Thanks to identify fraud, $16 billion was stolen from 12 million people in 2014. 
  • Counterfeit and pirated products are a $650 billion dollar industry every year. 
  • Seniors lose $36 billion a year in scams. 
  • In 2014 there was a billion dollar loss due to internet crime. 
For even more depressing but important reading, check out Wikipedia’s “White Collar Crime” page. The statistics are numbing.

What about the real impact on human life? 
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Now, as a pastor, I could offer a whole argument about the sin nature I believe all of us have. That’s a theological claim, not a biological one, and it encompasses all people. Because of my theological bent, I suspect that if you put people in similar situations from the time they are children, the numbers of those who commit criminal acts would look about the same. What I am addressing in this post are the ways in which aspects of nurture impacts our lives. Some people have a nurturing advantage because of the circumstances into which they are born, and some do not.

That is not an excuse to do wrong; it’s just an observation of how circumstances impact the trajectory of our lives. If we are all born with a nature bent toward doing wrong - and I believe we are - the nurturing environments in which we are placed is more than a little important. Perhaps you have heard the phrase, "There, but for the sake of God, go I." The idea is that we recognize, given a different set of circumstances, our lives could have gone a very different way.


Since I am a pastor, it probably won't shock you to know that I believe the deepest and best solution begins by allowing God to redeem our broken, sinful nature and give us a "new life," to use biblical language. That's my foundation, and I build from there.

However, even if you don't agree, I think we can still agree there are areas of focus that will provide stabilizing and nurturing guardrails for all of us.

White Collar Crime

The motivation behind white collar crime is hard to nail down. A popular notion is that they have done a cost/benefit analysis and decided the risk was worth it. Interviews, however, don’t seem to support that. It’s not that methodically rational. It seems that the drift into crime by otherwise decent people has many of different explanations; they felt a lot of pressure to be more successful than they were; they didn't think it was that big of a deal; they were almost coldly distant from their victims because they couldn’t see the immediate impact of their actions. It made something they would never do to one person easy to do to many.  One death is a tragedy, right, the death of 10,000 is a statistic?

It might be harder to find a solution for those who drift into crime than those who dive or are pushed into it. I've seen a couple solutions offered: more teaching on ethics; more contact with the common folk; more use of rational faculties. I don't know. There seems to be a general thread in the stories of apathetic compromise. These are accidental monsters more often than not. I wonder how much has to to with what's been called affluenza: 
"Social condition that affects a society because of the elevated number of individuals striving to be wealthy. People within the society feel that the only measure of success is determined by how much money and prestige a person has.
2. A social theory claiming that individuals with very privileged and wealthy backgrounds sometimes struggle to determine the difference between right and wrong due to the nature of their upbringing. Also known as sudden-wealth syndrome."
If that's a legitimate description - and it might be - we are back to a question of nurture.
  • We see a lot of studies on the impact of poverty; do we study the impact of wealth? 
  • We stress stability in families, but what do we mean by that? It's got to be more than structure. There must be something to do with how values, priorities and attitudes are modeled and passed on. 
  • We talk about the value of education, but what do we do when the most educated among us lack fundamental moral knowledge? 
  • We think access to things will foster upward mobility, but what if value of our things trends up while the state of our hearts trends down?
This is new territory for me. I'm used to the classic street crime index with its problems and solutions. I need to read more on this. (After reading this article, a sociologist friend recommended David Simon's, 'Elite Deviance',  as well as C. Wright Mills'  'The Power Elite' and 'White Collar Crime'.)

Street Crime

The practical recipe for diminishing street crime seems more tangible to me as well. In no particular order, here is the kind of moral and social ecosystem we need to build.
  • Building a solid family.  Sociologically, there is little argument that children flourish best with their biological parents in a loving, stable, low-conflict family. Obviously, we fall short of ideals for all kinds of reasons. This does not mean all is lost, of course, but it does mean there is a new set of hurdles. In the absence of both parents, love, stability and low conflict remain key, and will have a huge impact on kids. 
  • Engaging in religious communities. One argument is that the socialization and peer pressure put guardrails in people’s lives. To that degree, civic organizations, schools and clubs could functionally do the same. Another argument is that there is a supernatural reality as God does a work in those who are committed. Christianity, for example targets the heart. The biblical claim is that the wellspring of our life flows from our heart. Fix the heart, fix the life. I believe both the socialization and the supernatural are at work here – and that the latter matters tremendously - but you don’t have to agree with me on the second point to see the validity of the first.
  • Giving stability until kids grow up. See the previous two points for important ways to do this. When we are young, we are vulnerable not just physically but emotionally and relationally in ways we often are not when we are adults. Over time, we and our peers become (hopefully) wiser and exert better influence. Jobs eventually keep people busy and provide income. Marriage was cited in a lot of studies as a great stabilizing force; people who settle into the routines of family life tend to stabilize. And then, at least when it comes to street crime, people just aren’t as spry as they used to be. Yeah, I found that in  an actual study.
  • Helping people move out of poverty. Making this move is a complex and multi-faceted endeavor since there can be a lot of reasons for poverty. However, key aspects include facilitating education, promoting family stability, and creating opportunities that get people out of the emotional, economic and relational ruts in their lives. People in desperate situations often do desperate things; if we can help to ease the desperation, we all benefit. For this reason, I see great wisdom in supporting carefully developed poverty initiatives in both the private and public sphere. 

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