U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is claiming credit for beginning the end of what President Donald Trump has termed “American Carnage,” a spike in violent crime during 2015 and 2016, the final two years of the Obama administration.
In an opinion piece published Tuesday in USA Today, Sessions pointed to preliminary FBI data showing that violent crime in the United States decreased by 0.9 percent during the first half of last year and that the increase in the murder rate had slowed.
“When President Trump was inaugurated, he made the American people a promise: ‘This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,’” Sessions wrote. “It is a promise that he has kept.”
Too soon to know
But criminologists say it’s too early to read anything into the reported six-month decline in crime and that there is little evidence to support Sessions’ claim that Trump administration policies contributed to it.
“It’s obviously positive if violent crime goes down, but I think drawing conclusions about annual trends or a ‘leveling out’ based on six months of data is premature,” said New Orleans-based crime analyst Jeff Asher. “I’m not sure the data shows anything has changed.”
The attorney general attributed the decline in part to increased federal prosecution of all manner of violent criminals: gang members, human traffickers and firearms violators.
But Thomas Abt, a former federal prosecutor now a senior fellow at Harvard Law School and Kennedy School of Government, noted that the decline came before Trump announced his first wave of U.S. attorneys in June.
“It’s simply not honest to say that aggressive federal prosecution was responsible for the crime decline when the federal prosecutors that Trump nominated weren’t even in office at the time,” Abt said.
What is more, he said, about 90 percent of criminal prosecutions in the United States are handled by local and state courts, leaving the federal government with a limited role in crime fighting.
“The argument that Sessions seems to be making, which is that what we do with our 10 percent is having a big impact on the 90 percent, is a little hard to believe,” Abt said.
Slowdown in ‘murder rate’
According to the FBI data, the number of murders rose by 1.5 percent during the first six months of last year, compared with an increase of 5.2 percent during the same period in 2016, a slowdown Sessions highlighted as an achievement.
Asher dismissed the change as insignificant.
“I’m not sure the data shows anything has changed,” Asher said. He added that the figures still leave the country’s murder rate about 20 percent higher than it was in 2014.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Through much of the past year, Sessions has frequently cited FBI data on increases in violent crime in 2015 and 2016 to warn about a festering crime epidemic and to push his tough-on-crime agenda.
In February, he set up a task force on violent crime reduction and public safety. In March, he directed federal prosecutors to prioritize targeting violent criminals. And in May, he ordered U.S. attorneys to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” with the lengthiest sentences in all criminal cases.”
Citing an 11 percent increase in the murder rate in 2015, Sessions told a group of law enforcement officers in August that “violent crime is back with a vengeance.”
Fluctuation in data
But crime data fluctuate from year to year, and Abt said it is more helpful to look at three- to five-year increments of data for evidence of a trend.
“It’s premature to celebrate,” Abt said. “What happens month to month or year to year can change.”
Despite the upticks in 2015 and 2016, crime in the United States remains well below its peak in the early 1990s.
In 1991, there were 758 incidents of violent crime per 100,000 residents. In 2016, the violent crime rate stood at 386 incidents per 100,000 residents.
Criminologists attribute the decline to a variety of factors, from improved policing to community engagement to increased incarceration.