There is half as much crime in the US right now as there was about 25 years ago. Both violent and property crime have declined pretty steadily since the early 1990s.
But Americans are more concerned about crime now than they have been since 2001.
That's because Americans keep thinking that crime rates are going up. At any given time, between half and three-quarters of them will say that there's more crime in America than there was last year.
As you can see, it isn't just that many Americans think crime is higher when it's actually lower. It's not even the case that more Americans think crime is up in years when it's actually up (or flat) than in years when it's down. Crime rates didn't really change from 2000 to 2001, for example — but in 2000, 47 percent of Americans said crime was going up, and in 2001 only 41 percent did.
Americans aren't necessarily panicking over crime — throughout 2016, an average of 3 percent of them named it as the most important problem facing the country today. And a plurality of Americans believe there are too many people in prison.
But the massive disconnect between what crime rates actually are and what many Americans think they are shows two things. One is that in general, Americans think large societal issues are getting way worse than they actually are. Most Americans, for example, think teen pregnancy is going up — when in actuality it recently hit a two-decade low. A lot of people, it turns out, could stand to be a lot more optimistic about the future.
The second is this: when you ask Americans whether crime is up in their area, many of them still overstate it, but not as many. Consistently, about 20 percent of Americans think crime isn't going up in their area, but is going up nationwide. That's because many Americans, particularly white Americans, are simply isolated from the reality of crime and punishment in the US.
African Americans are disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime. But they're also disproportionately likely to be the victims of overpolicing and mass incarceration. Meanwhile, plenty of Americans are safely protected from both. It's hardly surprising that their perception of whether crime rates are going up bears so little resemblance to reality.