Clearance Rates - Bad News?

December 11, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Crime is news only when it’s bad. Most crime stories are reports of individual crimes, the worse the better. But even when the media report on general trends and statistics, they look for trouble. Good news is no news.

This week, it was the clearance rate for homicide – the percentage of murders where the police made an arrest. “More Getting Away With Murder,” was a typical headline.
Despite the rise of DNA fingerprinting and other "CSI"-style crimefighting wizardry, more and more people are getting away with murder.

FBI figures show that the homicide clearance rate, as detectives call it, dropped from 91% in 1963 - the first year records were kept in the manner they are now - to 61% in 2007. (From the Chicago Sun-Times)
The big decrease in clearance rates accompanied a big increase in murder that began, coincidentally, in 1963.

It wasn’t that a tide of incompetence was washing over homicide bureaus nationwide. The problem was that more of the murders were the kind where it’s hard to know who to arrest. The easy ones are the arguments and fights between family members and acquaintances. But much of the increase in homicide came from killings committed during robberies or between rival drug dealers, and those murders are much harder to solve.

Clearance rates fell from 91% in 1963 to 67% in 1991, the peak year for homicide. Since then, murder rates have declined dramatically. Clearance rates, too, still continued to slide, though less steeply, from 67% to 61%.

That’s the bad news. If you want the good news, look at the actual numbers of cases.

From 1991 to 2006, the number of uncleared murders declined. In 1991, about 8000 people “got away with murder.” By 2006, that number had decreased to about 6,300. The number of cleared murders also decreased. The real news is that Americans are killing one another far less frequently than they did fifteen or twenty years ago. The clearance rate has decreased because the murders that are easy to solve have decreased more rapidly than the kind that are hard to solve.

So while “More Getting Away With Murder” has the virtue of appealing to our sense of moral outrage, it has the disadvantage of being untrue.

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