Harvard Scholar Highlights Unclear Causes Behind Rising Homicide Rates NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Thomas Abt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Law School, about the latest statistics showing a national increase in homicide.
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Harvard Scholar Highlights Unclear Causes Behind Rising Homicide Rates

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Harvard Scholar Highlights Unclear Causes Behind Rising Homicide Rates

Harvard Scholar Highlights Unclear Causes Behind Rising Homicide Rates

Harvard Scholar Highlights Unclear Causes Behind Rising Homicide Rates

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/554057382/554057383" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Thomas Abt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Law School, about the latest statistics showing a national increase in homicide.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As we've reported here, the FBI's crime statistics for last year show a second straight year of rising homicide rates. Violent crime is still low by historic standards, but the increase in violent crime was 4 percent over 2015. The rate of property crime continues to go down. Well, what should we make of this? What's behind it? Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at both Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School, writes in a New York Times op-ed that the causes remain very unclear, and he warns against facile explanations and reactions. Thomas Abt, welcome to the program.

THOMAS ABT: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: First, let me put to you a very common reaction to rising violent crime or rising murder rates. It's guns. It's the number of guns that are out there. Can we say that's a cause?

ABT: I think it's unlikely. The reason is I don't think anything is fundamentally changed in the gun markets in the United States. The second reason is because overwhelmingly gun crime is perpetrated with weapons that are already illegal.

SIEGEL: So there's a relationship to violent crime, but it's not necessarily a relationship to a spike in violent crime over the past couple of years.

ABT: Yes. That's the tension. On all sides, there is an urge to simplify these issues down to one factor, and it's usually the factor that that particular person or constituency cares most about.

SIEGEL: Opioids are in the news. In the past couple of years, it's been a huge discussion. Should one look for an obvious link there?

ABT: One should look, but I think when one does, what we find is that the rise in opioids occurred well before the increase in violence. And so it's not a particularly strong explanation.

SIEGEL: Then there is something that is called the Ferguson effect, that after much attention was paid to police using violence often caught on videotape, the cops have been hanging back. There's been less enforcement. A valid contribution perhaps to violent crime?

ABT: I think there may be some partial truth there, but I think the stronger explanation is a different type of Ferguson effect that deals with the underlying legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Research from Harvard and Yale indicates that when communities feel disconnected from their criminal justice system, when there's highly publicized incidences of excessive force, communities turn inward and away from their police. And that often leads to violence because when someone beats up your cousin, you don't call the police. You call your friends.

SIEGEL: One caution you raise in your New York Times op-ed piece is this is not the time for predictable political reactions to crime figures. We'll hear some very familiar prescriptions and perhaps we should cool it and wait and see what's going on a bit more.

ABT: Absolutely. I believe that we should treat these latest numbers as a cause for concern but not panic. I think it's very important that we don't use these numbers to instill fear or divisiveness, that we don't demagogue this data. At the same time, I think it's very important not to ignore it.

SIEGEL: Well, you've warned us about what not to do over these crimes - what should we do?

ABT: I think the fundamental thing that people should understand is that we can actually push criminal justice reform forward and address violent crime at the same time. These two issues are not at odds with one another. In fact, they support one another. And the reason is that if we have a system that is more legitimate, that people believe in, that they have higher trust and higher confidence, the research indicates that violence slowly will go down.

SIEGEL: Thomas Abt of Harvard's Kennedy School and Harvard Law School, thanks for talking with us.

ABT: It's my pleasure.

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