Homicide Rates in 2020 Rose to a 24-Year High. Is This a Crisis of State Legitimacy?
By mid 2020, it was already becoming clear that the United States was experiencing a spike in crime. Indeed, by midyear, numerous media outlets were already reporting remarkably large increases in homicide in a number of cities. It was clear that if then-current trends continued, homicide rates in the United States would reach levels not seen in over a decade.
With full-year data for 2020 now available from the FBI’s Crime in the USA report, we can see that those predictions were right. According to the report, the homicide rate in the United States rose to 6.5 per 100,000 in 2020, which is the highest rate reported since 1997—a 24 year high.
Moreover the increase from 2019 to 2020 was one of the largest increases the US has experienced in ninety years. For similar increases in a similarly short period of time, we must go back to the 1960s—or even the 1940s—to find similar changes. In other words, this is not normal. If the current trend continues, the US could find itself back experiencing homicide growth not experienced since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It remains to be seen, however, if this is a temporary spike or part of a longer trend. If it is a spike, we can expect homicide rates to fall back to around 5 per 100,000, as had become a common experience over the past decade. If it is just a spike, then we can blame the surge in homicide on short-term events such as the covid lockdowns or the Black Lives Matter riots. If the surge is part of a larger trend, however, we’ll need to look to more broad and permanent causes for a satisfactory explanation.
But finding the causes of larger trends in homicide rates is no simple matter, and ideological groups tend to use movements in homicide rates as “proof” of the correctness of their preferred political hobby horses. Indeed, it’s easy to point to a variety of different causes because crime historians and others who research homicides all have their own preferred explanations.
There is compelling evidence, however, that trends in crime are driven largely by how the public views the legitimacy of the regime and its institutions. In short, the theory rests on the idea that crime increases when a jurisdiction’s residents do not respect government institutions, and do not believe that government institutions can provide safety or administer justice in a fairly reliable way.
If the United States is indeed at the beginning of an upward trend in homicide, it might be more evidence of what many already suspect is happening: trust in American political institutions is falling, and consequently fear of private crime and social disorder is rising.
Homicides: Some Historical Perspective
In order to get some perspective on these trends, however, we have to look at historical movements in homicide rates.
There is significant disagreement over the measurement of homicide rates in the early twentieth century, and data is especially spotty before the FBI established the Uniform Crime Report system in 1
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