Oregon Crime Data: Are we safer?

Are Oregonians safer from crime today?
By Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance

The title of this article sparks the questions of, “safer than when?” and “measured by what standard?” Let’s start with the “standard” first.

Measured by what standard? Index Crime

Since the 1930s, the FBI has been keeping track of “index” crimes. Every year, local, state, and national law enforcement agencies report their jurisdictions’ crime statistics to the FBI. The reporting is voluntary, although many states have passed laws requiring the submission of the data. Index crime is the standard normally used to measure whether crime is going up or down. There are 7 index crimes broken down into violent and property crimes.

Violent crimes and Property crimes
1. Aggravated assault
2. Forcible rape
3. Murder
4. Robbery
5. Burglary
6. Larceny-theft
7. Motor vehicle theft Note: Since 1979 the FBI has been reporting arson crimes, and sometimes it is included as the 8th index crime.

Safer than when?

The time period one looks at determines the answer to this question. There have been many articles written in the last few years indicating that crime is down all around the country. These articles look at crime over the last 20 or 25 years. For Oregon, if one makes the comparison from 1985 to 2008, then crime is down dramatically. It gradually dropped from 1985 to 1995, and then it dropped dramatically after that. The chart printed below shows this 10-year gradual decline from 1985 to 1995, and then a 13-year dramatic decline in the violent crime rate. So…looking at just this part of the chart, the conclusion is that violent crime is down in Oregon – a good thing.

However, if we look at the Oregon violent crime rate in 1960 and compare it to 2008, then violent crime is still significantly up. The chart below shows us that in 1960 there were about 60 violent crimes per 100,000 people in Oregon. This number jumped 691% to about 550 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 1985. This number has dropped to about 250 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2008. So…looking at the whole chart and going back about 50 years instead of 25 years, violent crime is up substantially in Oregon.

The fair summary for the 50-year period is that Oregon’s violent crime rate rose dramatically for about 25 years and then dropped significantly for 25 years but hasn’t come close to the low violent crime rates of the 1960s. There is still much work to do to make us all safer. One additional note, the property crime trend matches fairly closely the violent crime trend discussed above and shown in the chart below.

What caused the violent crime drop of the last 20 years in Oregon?

Was it imprisonment, demography, the booming economy, or something else that caused the crime drop? There is little agreement among experts about what caused this drop, and no consensus about what the future will hold. Let me just offer a brief observation on the incarceration issue. In 1994, the people of Oregon passed mandatory minimum sentences for 16 violent crimes, and the legislature added other mandatory minimum sentences for other violent crimes after that. The dramatic Oregon violent crime drop coincides closely with the implementation of the mandatory minimum sentences that continue to today. In its 2007 Report to the Legislature, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission stated, “Recent research indicates that incarceration significantly affects crime rates.” They explain how in 1994 for every criminal incarcerated for one year roughly 29 crimes were avoided, and that this rate has dropped to fewer than 11 crimes being avoided for every offender incarcerated by 2005. They said economists call this the law of diminishing marginal returns. Stopping 11 crimes by incarcerating one offender for one year makes sense to me. Finally, in the report, they refer to a study by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy that found that for every $1.00 dollar spent incarcerating a violent offender more than $4.00 is saved.

Doug Harcleroad
Senior Policy Advisor

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Posted by at 04:25 | Posted in Measure 37 | 22 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Rupert in Springfield

    Im not sure you can tie it to any one thing. Of course mandatory sentencing reduces crime, no one would dispute that. However the question is it worth the cost?

    We could stop virtually all traffic accidents by reducing all roads to a maximum of 25 MPH. However society has decided that the cost of that, not being able to travel efficiently, is not worth it.

    Mandatory sentencing is smiler. We could stop all virtually all violent crime by incarcerating all males between the ages of 16 and 40, but obviously most would say that is not worth the cost.

    We need to start looking as a society at the cost of things versus their benefit. For example, Obama’s stimulus bill cost in round numbers $1T (more with the interest we will pay). The cost of this was never considered in even the most cursory way. That $1T is an inconceivable figure, but when you divide it by the number of taxpayers you find you could have handed every one of them a check for $7,000 for that amount of money. Few would argue that doing precisely that would have created more economic stimulus than what actually happened.

    I am not saying mandatory sentencing is a bad thing, far from it. What I am saying is that the cost of that incarceration needs to be looked at. Is the $23,000 or so we spend to incarcerate someone for a year well spent? Yes, if we look at it in terms of the costs of the crimes prevented. Could we do this less expensively and still maintain humane treatment? I think so. Im not arguing for bread and watered delivered to someone sitting in a hole in the ground. What I do think could be done is take another look at our prison system.

    • valley p

      Well, I agree with the first half of what you wrote. Locking up half the population at random would probably reduce crime by half. But then you wander off the reservation on the Stimulus bill.

      The “cost” of it is beside the point, which is why it was a “stimulus.” It was money injected into the economy. There are more and less effective ways to do that, its true, but in an emergency one doesn’t have the luxury of time to consider all possibilities. Nevertheless, handing everyone a check would have been the least effective method because when the economy is in turmoil people stop spending. They would have saved the money, hence the stimulus effect would have been nill.

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