Politics of fear: Despite the violence, a key homicide rate is down

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Most Americans probably believe that society has become more dangerous over the past 30 years -- and that homicide rates among young people have risen. The fear of such violence has been fomented, at least in part, by a barrage of sometimes sensational media coverage focused on mass shootings, gangs and urban violence.

Shortsighted politicians have exploited these fears. They have enacted a range of failed tough-on-crime measures, such as imposing mandatory minimum sentences and eliminating parole.

Despite the hype, the facts on violence and public safety offer hope. The homicide rate for older children and young adults is at its lowest point in at least 30 years, according to a new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2010, the homicide rate for victims between the ages of 10 and 24 was less than half the rate reported in 1993, when crack cocaine, starting in the 1980s, fueled large increases in crime and disputes between rival drug crews. That age group accounts for a third of the nation's homicide victims, with the highest rates consistently among people in their late teens and 20s.

Other indicators in the CDC study also point to a somewhat safer nation. Last year, the number of murders hit its lowest point in four decades, having dropped nearly 45 percent since peaking in 1991. In the past 20 years, some of the largest declines in homicides have occurred in large urban centers -- such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. -- that have long-standing reputations for violence.

Two decades ago, criminologists and politicians, including President Bill Clinton, predicted that a generation of extremely violent young people was about to jolt crime rates. Some states built maximum-security youth prisons to accommodate a tsunami of superpredators, but it never came. Others enacted get-tough-on-crime laws; prison populations around the country tripled.

No one knows why homicides have dropped, though not steadily, over the past three decades. Theories -- some of them bizarre -- include the availability of legalized abortion, reductions in the amount of lead that children are exposed to and even improved trauma care that boosts survival rates.

Getting more police on the streets, starting with an omnibus crime bill passed in 1994, is another explanation. Gun-rights advocates cite increased numbers of concealed carry permits.

Data-driven and community policing methods have helped to reduce youth violence. So have partnerships among law enforcement and social service, employment and education agencies, along with other comprehensive, communitywide prevention strategies. Across the country, a public health model for reducing violence has informed efforts such as school-based conflict resolution training, peer mentoring, cease-fires and street outreach.

Despite the lower homicide rate for young people, the United States remains one of the world's most violent nations. Firearms were used in nearly 80 percent of all homicides over the past three decades. Young African-Americans continue to be killed at rates nearly four times higher than the average for all young people. Moreover, progress for all groups appears to be slowing.

As communities and states combat violence, reason and pragmatism must guide their efforts -- not exaggerated fears or the failed policies of the past.



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