The leading element in local television news is crime. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the popular explanation of the television stations’ choice of visual menu for its viewers. This certainly helps prosecutors when those viewers show up at the courthouse as jurors. They all have formed the belief that crime dominates everyone’s life. These jurors are ready to get on the bandwagon before they enter the courtroom.
But the incidence of crime is not the same as the perception of the incidence of crime. Crime is not as prevalent as it is perceived to be. Gallup has been taking public polls for decades. One of the polls they take is a measure of the public’s perception of crime.
A Gallup Poll conducted in October, 2007, showed an increase in negative public perceptions about crime, an increase from a few years ago. The poll showed that statistically about half of Americans say crime is up in their local areas and about 7 in 10 Americans say crime is up nationally.
Meanwhile, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics publish statistics which measure the actual incidence of crime in America. Both these sources show that both for crimes of violence and crimes of property the rates have generally leveled off to statistically “extremely low numbers”. Rates of both types of crime declined sharply during the 1990s and now have leveled off at historically low rates. The history of data for the Bureau of Justice goes back about 37 years since it began collecting data in 1972.
But reality does not affect the headlines on every nightly news show, nor on the variety of police detective shows. The focus, the fascination, the fear goes on. And on.
Furthermore, the problem with the mistaken perception is that it produces the general opinion that we are not “tough enough on crime” and so those in law enforcement and in the court system are encouraged to become overly zealous in pursuing people who are accused of a crime, many times producing injustice to the accused, instead of justice for all.