Column: Perception, not reality, drives America’s crime policy

  • (Dreamstime/TNS) Dreamstime

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 6/12/2022 5:02:49 AM
Modified: 6/12/2022 5:00:32 AM

“Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.”

— George Carlin

George Carlin’s humorous observation illustrates the importance of perception in considering, well, almost everything.

Tuesday’s early primaries, particularly in California, illustrate the power and danger of perception in shaping our political and social future. This headline in Wednesday’s New York Times sums it up well: “California Sends Democrats and the Nation a Message on Crime.” The “message” took the form of a recall of a prosecutor perceived as weak on crime and an unexpectedly strong showing by Los Angeles billionaire mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, who is making crime a centerpiece of his campaign against progressive Democrat Karen Bass.

This dynamic is playing out in early elections across the nation as public perception of crime and safety is a dominant issue. It has created a real dilemma for progressive candidates. When the electorate sees crime rising, progressive calls for policies like “defunding the police” are a losing strategy. Of course this, too, is perception, not reality. There has been no legislation enacted anywhere that actually “defunded” the police. When voters see homeless encampments encroaching on their neighborhoods, law and order candidates have strong appeal. As I noted in a previous column, a proliferation of gun violence leads to a proliferation of gun sales, not gun control.

The Republican Party seizes on these perceptions to fuel a “We’re fed up and we’re not going to take it any more!” mentality. Along with accusing Democrats and President Biden of creating inflation and raising gas prices, crime and safety promise to be the hot button issues that the GOP will use to regain control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

It is helpful, and fascinating, to look at what the facts say. According to a Pew Research Center study, both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics report that rates for both violent crimes and property crimes have dropped steadily and sharply from the 1990s until 2020. There has been a slight uptick in some areas in the past two years, generally attributed to the pandemic.

The illegitimate power of perception is illustrated by these statistics:

In 20 of 24 Gallup surveys since 1993, more than 60% of Americans believed crime rates, nationally, were increased over the prior year — when they were not.

More remarkably, the majority of Americans believed that crime was up nationally, but not in the area where they lived. In 2020, 78% believed crime was up nationally while only 38% believed local crime increased.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 74% of Trump supporters in the last election believed national crime was rapidly rising; once again perception, not reality. I can’t resist a paraphrase of Pogo’s inextinguishable wisdom — “We have met the criminals and it is us” — as indictments of Republican insurrectionists roll in.

These misperceptions have multiple causes, from unscrupulous political campaigns to sensationalist media. In the former category, mobs of immigrant criminals are fabricated when, in fact, immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes.

In the latter category, media reports and Amber Alerts would have you lock your children in their bedrooms, yet child abductions are less frequent now than in your childhood, whenever that was. And the vast majority of those (74%) are disgruntled parent abductions. Statistically, in this era of “stranger danger” warnings, you might be best served by leaving your child with a stranger!

The most destructive consequence of this largely intentional misperception is to drive resources toward more repressive police practices and incarceration. A 2021 PBS report placed the total cost of incarceration at $182 billion annually. By contrast, the organizations seeking to reintegrate or rehabilitate prisoners operate on fumes. Criminal justice is a revolving door with many of the billions going to further enrich the wealthy through what is properly termed the “prison-industrial complex.” It is more profitable to frighten Americans about crime than to actually do anything about it.

The root causes of crime are, and always have been, things like income inequality, inadequate education, poor health care and lack of affordable housing. Instead of investing in solving these social problems, we stand by as wealth inequality grows, health care costs skyrocket, schools in poor areas are underfunded and decent housing is far out of reach for tens of millions of Americans.

The real truth about our country is that we have a compassion crisis, not a crime crisis, but too many voters appear convinced that what we need now is more law and order. Perhaps this is the inevitability of late-stage capitalism: Drive inequality to the breaking point and then use the power of the state to further oppress the oppressed. We can wish it weren’t so, but the early 2022 returns are not promising.

Our republic’s cup is not half empty, half full or too large. It has gaping holes with little hope of repair on the horizon.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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