Saturday, November 13, 2010

Murder rates steady or falling

This blog has sometimes questioned sensationalist media coverage of crime that hides the unsensational reality of stable, or falling, crime rates. In that context it is worth exploring longer-term figures from Gapminder's graph of murder statistics from 1950 to 2005.

First, United States, Japan and Ireland:

(For purposes of clarity I use a logarithmic graph which distorts the impression of the numbers somewhat.)

United States
Murder rates remained steady in the 1950s around 5 murders per 100,000 people, rising consistently during the 1960s to hit a high of 11 per 100,000 in 1974. From then until the early 1990s, rates hovered around 8 and 10, hitting another peak of 10 murders in 1993. After this murder fell steeply to only 6.4 in 2005.

To summarise, American murder rates rose, remained stable, and then declined. By the 2000s, rates were down to the level of the early 1960s.

Murder rates collapse from 2.2 murders per 100,000 to only 0.44 per 100,000 in 2005: a dramatic improvement.

Murder rates start at an extraordinary low level in 1950, only 0.34 per 100,000. The 1960s and 1970s experienced a general increase in murders, peaking in 1981 before falling again. By 2005 Ireland's murder rates were down as far as its 1960s level.

Lest it seems that I cherrypick these countries, let's look at a few more. This time, Australia, Canada and the UK.

Starts at 1/100,000, increases and then falls quickly in recent years, falling to only 0.78/100,000 in 2005.

Starts at 0.95/100,000, increases significantly to a high of 2.7/100,000 in 1975, fell again to only 1.7/100,000 in 2005.

United Kingdom
Starts low, at only 0.49/100,000, rises dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, peaks at a high of 1.6 in 1976 before falling. By 2005 murder rates were down below their 1950 levels.

The general trend for all these developed nations except Japan is for murder rates to rise, peak in the 1970s and then fall in the 1990s and 2000s. Japan has sustained unusual declines all the way. New Zealand has experienced a mild increase since 1950, peaking in 1992, Netherlands peaked in 1999.

People ought to feel pretty good about these figures, considering the improvements experienced in many countries since earlier peaks in violence. Do they? Just a few days ago I was buying groceries in a small village shop in Westmeath. The radio was playing in the background and the shopkeeper observed that there had been another murder in Dublin.

"There's one every day now," he said. Only after I returned to my car that I thought I should have mentioned the 13.3% decline in homicides over the last 12 months, down to 52. Hardly one every day! The perception of crime seems higher than its reality.


  1. It's funny. When I came to university first I was talking with a Dub who became a friend. She knew by my accent I was from the wesht. I told her I was from Sligo and she sneeringly replied after a tut "When was the last time someone was murdered in Sligo?" Apparently you can judge prosperity and civility from a murder statistic. Bizarrely, in this instance the higher the murder rate the better off/cooler your city/town was! Now that I think of it there's a measurement for stupidity the guys at gapminder might be interested in computing.

  2. Hahaha! Interesting concept: the uncultured country folk are too conformist to dabble in cool city trends like murder ;)

    Another day I'll compare Dublin's crime statistics with "stab city" Limerick!


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