More misleading crime statistics:

The Telegraph (U.K.) writes:

[In 1987, Oklahoma enacted a] Make My Day Law, named for the celebrated scene in the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry film.

The law was pushed through by Sen Charles Ford, a Republican, the opposition party in the state. “The purpose of the law is to protect the victim of crime who defends his home and his family against unlawful intrusion from any criminal prosecution or civil action,” Sen Ford said last week.

“We considered it outrageous that someone who protects his home and family should suffer. Our law says you can use any force, including deadly force, to defend your home.”

So far, I’m fine with that. But the article continues:

[The law] has been an unqualified success. Since the Make My Day Law came into force, burglary has declined by almost half in Oklahoma. In 1987, there were 58,333 cases; in 2000, just 31,661.

While crime rates throughout America fell in the 1990s, Make My Day supporters point to a second statistic in Oklahoma they say proves the impact of the new law: while burglary rates plunged, other forms of theft stayed constant. In 1988, there were 96,418 cases, in 2000, 96,111.

Yet the first statistic tells us nearly nothing about Make My Day laws: The Oklahoma burglary rate in 2000 was 51.5% the rate in 1987, while the nationwide burglary rate in 2000 was 54.5% the rate in 1987. “While crime rates throughout America fell” is an understatement — they fell by nearly the same amount in other states as in Oklahoma. (Note that, like the newspaper story, I’m using Uniform Crime Reports numbers, not the National Crime Victimization Study numbers.)

What about the second statistic (which focuses on other theft excluding car theft and robbery)? First, the 1988-2000 comparison is odd given that the preceding comparison was 1987-2000: If you compare 1987 and 2000, you find that reported thefts dropped from 105,639 to 96,116; and if you compare rates per person rather than raw numbers, you find that the theft rate dropped from 3220 to 2785, which is to say fell to 86.5% of its 1987 level. The nationwide theft rate fell to 80% of its 1987 level. This tells us that, first, Oklahoma was again not far out of step with the U.S.; and, second, that there are all sorts of reasons why the burglary rate might fall much faster than the theft rate (such as higher penalty increases for burglary than for theft, changes in policing priorities, and many more).

So there’s really no reason at all to think that the statistics tell us anything about the merits of the Make My Day law. I support the law because I think it’s fair, and because I think it probably does have some marginal deterrent effect. But the statistical argument given in favor of the law seems extremely weak.

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