clock menu more-arrow no yes

The great majority of violent crime in America goes unsolved

If Trump wants to stop crime in the US, these are the numbers that should worry him.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

If President Donald Trump really wants to stop “the cycle of violence” in America, there is a series of statistics in criminal justice that should really, really worry him.

The figures, from a new Pew Research Center report: Fewer than half of violent crimes and about a third of property crimes in the US are reported to the police each year. Meanwhile, less than half of violent crimes and less than one-fifth of property crimes that are reported are actually cleared by police and referred to prosecution. (Keep in mind that the clearance rate is not even the solved rate, because prosecution doesn’t always lead to conviction.)

A chart showing the rate of crimes reported and solved in the US.

To put it another way, most US crimes, from murder to common theft, are unreported, and the great majority of crimes that are reported aren’t solved.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is the case, from a lack of law enforcement interest or resources to distrust in the police making someone unwilling to phone the cops when something goes wrong.

Yet policymakers often neglect this flaw in the criminal justice system. More often than not, the conversation focuses on the harshness of punishments — if we should use a mandatory minimum sentence to guarantee a prison sentence is long enough, whether we should constrain when a prisoner can apply for parole, and so on. But for all this focus on the severity of punishment, America’s biggest problem is that most criminal offenders aren’t likely to get caught; their certainty of punishment is very, very low.

That not only suggests to would-be criminals that they can probably get away with a crime, but it also tells communities more broadly that if they want justice, they can’t rely on the police — and maybe will have to take matters into their own, sometimes violent, ends.

This fosters distrust in the police, which leads to more crime

When crimes go unpunished, people are more likely to think that the government — and particularly the police and criminal justice system — aren’t taking such acts very seriously. And that makes people distrust the police, which might lead to even more crime.

Journalist Jill Leovy made this case in the award-winning Ghettoside. In the book, she draws on her years reporting on crime in Los Angeles to show the neglect that black communities in particular feel when it comes to crime and murder. She points to, for example, homicide clearance rates, which measure how many murders are solved by police.

Nationally, the average clearance rate is 61.5 percent, according to Pew. But in many places, particularly minority communities, the rate can get much, much lower: In New York City, for instance, 86 percent of 2013 homicides involving a white victim were solved, compared to 45 percent of those involving a black victim, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News. And David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Mother Jones that in minority communities clearance rates for murders and nonfatal shootings can get “pathetically low. They can easily fall down to single digits.”

“Explicitly confronting the reality of how murder happens in America,” Leovy writes in Ghettoside, “is the first step toward deciding that it is not acceptable, and that for too long black men have lived inadequately protected by the laws of their own country.”

Police officers stand around in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images

At the same time, the work that most people in these communities see police do can amount to harassment — such as “stop and frisk” for petty crimes like drug offenses, traffic violations, and loitering. Studies show these tactics are disproportionately deployed against black communities — even though stops involving black people are typically less likely to turn up contraband than stops involving white people.

“Imagine that you’re a student at a school. There are bullies at the school, and the bullies beat you up every day on the playground. But the only time the playground supervisor comes around, he or she says, ‘Don’t chew gum on the playground,’ and walks away, and ignores the bruises and the fighting,” Leovy told me last year. “You would be cynical. You would cease to believe in the system.”

In fact, you’d probably cease to believe that it’s just the bullies picking on you, but rather that the system is a bully in and of itself. Pulling back to the criminal justice system, this is how Leovy described the situation in her book: “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”

The result, Leovy argues, is more violence. The fundamental basis of the law has long been to help people settle disputes without violence and through some sort of legal system instead. White communities have lived with this comfort, based on the higher number of crimes solved in those communities, for generations. Black communities — where people are often trapped due to severe residential segregation — have not, and that helps explain why they suffer from high homicide and general violent crime rates.

As Leovy writes, “Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”

Certainty of punishment is more important than severity for deterring crime

Policymakers, however, have paid little attention to addressing this “legal cynicism” over the years, focusing not on the certainty that someone will be punished for wrongdoing but the severity of punishment should someone be caught.

That’s why we saw a spike in mandatory minimum sentences, “truth-in-sentencing” measures that limit access to parole for inmates, and other laws that make prison sentences much longer. The argument is that if criminal penalties are truly awful, people will think twice about breaking the law.

Trump is no exception to this, arguing over the years that lengthy prison sentences and other aggressive “tough on crime” policies are “the best social program.”

This focus on severity, however, goes against the expert consensus.

In criminology, the three levers for fighting crime, as criminal justice expert Mark Kleiman previously explained, are the swiftness, certainty, and severity of punishment — established way back in the 1700s by an Italian criminologist called Cesare Beccaria.

When we talk about increasing the length of prison sentences, we’re talking about the severity of punishment. This has been the lever that public policy has largely relied on over the past few decades, leading to the buildup of mass incarceration.

A woman watches from her window as police look for evidence at a Chicago crime scene. Scott Olson/Getty Images

But severity is, based on the available evidence, the weakest of these levers. What criminologists have found is that the certainty of punishment is far more important.

A 2010 review of the research by the Sentencing Project supported this. It pointed to a study by the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University in 1999 that concluded “the studies reviewed do not provide a basis for inferring that increasing the severity of sentences generally is capable of enhancing deterrent effects,” and that macro-level studies reviewed by the researchers found that an increased likelihood of apprehension and punishment — certainty — was linked to falling crime rates.

The US National Institute of Justice agrees, writing last year, “Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.” They added, “Research has found evidence that prison can exacerbate, not reduce, recidivism. Prisons themselves may be schools for learning to commit crimes.” So more certainty of punishment can deter crime, while more severity can actually make it worse after a certain point.

To some degree, this is common sense: People tend to commit crimes thinking they’ll get away with them, so whether they’re punished by 10, 20, or 100 years in prison is really not very important. But if you change their notion that they can get away with crime by making it more likely the criminal justice system will punish them, then you can make an impact.

Kleiman explained:

Why do some people keep committing crimes, to their own evident disadvantage? Because they’re present-oriented and impulsive, with deficient capacities for shaping their current behavior in light of their future goals, and with poor judgment about their actual odds of getting caught: all characteristics, as noted above, likely to be produced by growing up in high-crime neighborhoods. (Neglectful and abusive parenting also contributes, of course. So does exposure to environmental lead[.])

All of that should make it clear enough: Certainty truly matters for deterring crime, but severity is relatively weak.

Reform is difficult, but not impossible

Much of the problem here is a vicious circle: Communities are less likely to trust the police because so many homicides go unsolved. But because people are less likely to trust the police, they’re also less likely to help the police in solving crimes — which makes the cops’ job even harder.

That’s why the first step that criminologists suggest when it comes to solving more crimes is healing the distrust in the community. And that will involve making some admissions of guilt that a lot of police officers may not like.

As Kennedy of John Jay College previously told me, police will likely need to cop to a long history of abuse against minority communities. He mimicked what a police chief might say to a community: “We recognize these facts — whether we were there or not, whether we were around during slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, attacks on the civil rights movement, or whether it’s more recent things that we have done that you have found disrespectful and untoward, like zero-tolerance policing and high levels of stop and frisk.”

As part of this, police will also need to change how they’re deployed. Very often, cops are dropped into communities in a sweeping manner — through tactics like “stop and frisk” and military-style raids. This kind of scattershot approach, the research shows, is largely ineffective for fighting crime, but fosters distrust in communities who end up feeling unfairly targeted and over-policed.

It also misses a basic fact of how crime works in America: It’s often very, very focused — down to even individuals. As Harvard criminologist Thomas Abt previously wrote for Vox, “In most cities across the nation, 3 to 5 percent of city blocks account for 50 to 75 percent of all shootings and killings, with 1 percent of a city’s population responsible for 50 to 60 percent of all homicides.”

Crime scene tape. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

That’s why criminologists have called on tactics that work closely with the community, like “hot-spot policing” and “focused deterrence,” to address crime. Under focused deterrence, for example, the police and community come together to signal to would-be criminals that they can either take social welfare and community resources to stop their life of crime or they will almost certainly be turned over to law enforcement and prosecuted.

Not only do various studies show these policies work (they’re credited for much of the “Boston miracle” that saw violent crime rate drop by 79 percent in the 1990s), but they can also help boost police legitimacy.

“If you get very specific, you are better at fighting crime and reducing violence,” Abt previously told me. “But you also improve legitimacy by showing the community that you’re not occupying them like a military, but that you’re serving them by trying to help them address a small number of people in places that really are hurting the community.”

This can all be very difficult. It requires police rethinking how they do their jobs. It can require more resources to hire and train cops, as well as spending on social welfare programs to ensure that would-be criminals actually have a way out if they want it. And it’s often easy for governments to drop these investments once they see crime rates drop — since they think the problem is now taken care of — only for crime to climb back up as these tactics are ditched.

It won’t address the whole problem. Police also often need better technology and resources for crime solving. Witness protection programs, which make people feel safer when they do go to the cops, are notoriously underfunded. And very often, there’s just a lack of interest in doing this kind of work, because a lot of the emphasis has gone toward preventing crimes over the past few decades instead of solving them. (NPR had a great report on all of this in 2015.)

But if Trump wants to stop the cycle of violence he worries so much about, rebuilding trust between communities and law enforcement is the first step that criminologists have put forward.


Watch: How mandatory minimums helped drive mass incarceration