Quora Question: What Do We Misunderstand About Crime in America?

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Answer from Matthew Quirk , former reporter for The Atlantic, New York Times bestselling novelist, author of Dead Man Switch:

The first and most prevalent misconception is that crime is rising, when in fact a quick look at the numbers will tell you that crime is at its lowest rates in 40 years. Violent crimes have been cut in half since 1991. But polling shows that 60-70 percent of Americans think that crime is on the rise. There are a lot of factors at play. “If it bleeds it leads” is a maxim in local TV news. As more and more people get their information from TV, they get an outsized perception of crime in their neighborhood.

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Politicians are always talking about the causes and cures to crime, but no one knows why it has been dropping. That long secular decline in crime rates has been a favorite of social science research for decades and there is no single cause. It coincided in part with staggering increases in the number of incarcerated Americans (a five-fold increase in the last 40 years), but studies have found that more prisons can really only account for about 10 percent of the decrease in crime. There are a lot of hypotheses for the drop with varying levels of supporting evidence, from basic stuff like the decline in drinking or increased unemployment, to more far-out theories like the legalization of abortion or getting rid of lead paint. But there is no single factor, and if anyone tells you that there is a simple cause or cure for crime, don’t believe them.

A police car at scene of a mass shooting in Ohio

A police car blocks access to the scene of a mass shooting at the Cameo Nightlife club in Cincinnati, Ohio, March 26. Caleb Hughes/Reuters

The other common misconception about crime is about the perpetrators. The popular idea of a criminal is a stranger: the serial killer, the rapist, the kidnapper or child molester roving the town looking for random victims. But most violence comes from intimates of the victim (only about 11 percent of murders are committed by strangers). A lot of this is probably due to media sensationalization of such cases, and the portayals in TV and movies and books (I try to have my bad guys be close to their victims, but that’s more for dramatic purposes than anything else). People are drawn toward stories with easily understandable black-and-white villains and that tends to feed into the misconception.

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I grew up right after the Etan Patz case in New York, which was the beginning of the “stranger danger” lessons to kids. That shows how those misconceptions can miss the real source of most crimes and actually work against common-sense anti-crime steps, like getting to know your neighbors.

As for gangs, their members tend to be younger, much less organized and make far less money than you see in a lot of media. Latin gangs, like MS-13, are a serious threat in Central America (my wife does development work down there and in certain countries it can get scary: severed heads in the streets kind of stuff). They’re often depicted as a dangerous foreign threat in the states, but they actually originated in the U.S., and grew more powerful after we did mass criminal deportations in the 90s. In places with weak rule of law, like El Salvador, the gangs grew much stronger and came back to the U.S. as a more potent threat. I wrote a piece about this for the Atlantic. It’s a good lesson to keep in mind as we enter another moment of mass deportations. The way to keep gangs in check, whether in the U.S. or abroad, is to have well-functioning institutions, especially police and jobs, so that there aren’t mass numbers of alienated kids looking for respect and forming their own armed cliques.

What misconceptions do people often have about crime and gangs? originally appeared on Quorathe place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter , Facebook , and Google+ .

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