Donald Trump came into office following a campaign during which he spoke repeatedly of how dangerous and crime-ridden the United States has become. That description didn't match reality for most Americans, whose safety hasn't been at a higher level in years. Now Trump's new Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, has turned the volume up another notch, claiming that we are at the beginning of a permanent trend of increased criminal activity.
This is what Sessions said:
"We have a crime problem. I wish the blip — I wish the rise that we’re seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip. My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk."
Experts disagree with Sessions' assessment. Jerry Ratcliffe, director of Temple University's Center for Security and Crime Science, told The Guardian,
"Jeff Sessions is the first person who suggested this is a permanent trend. I don’t think anyone from a data perspective would agree with it."
FBI statistics show that there was an uptick in violent crime over the first half of 2016 compared to 2015, which is the most recent data available. But at the same time, property crime, with the exception of motor vehicle theft, continued to decline. The first half of 2016 marked the second consecutive year that had seen a mild increase in violent crime over the year before, but, as statisticians will tell you, two years is not enough to establish a trend.
Trump recently threw out a completely false statistic, saying that the murder rate was the highest it has been in 47 years. Not even close. In 2015 that rate stood at 4.9 murders per 100,000 population. While that does represent an increase over the previous five years, it is still lower than the rate for any other year since 1964.
So why the lies about crime? I suspect there are several things at work here. First, Trump and Sessions are advancing a claim with no basis in fact that residents of big cities (read: "black people") are killing each other in record numbers. Their chatter about "dangerous inner cities" is a signal to police forces that increased crackdowns on things like Black Lives Matter protests will be supported by the Trump Justice Department. After all, they will argue, law enforcement has an obligation to protect law-abiding residents from murderous "thugs." Of course it's just a coincidence that those "thugs" happen to be part of the anti-Trump resistance.
Second, the claim of a new crime wave allows for a reinvigorated war on drugs. Arresting low-level drug dealers and users is easy picking for police departments, and new drug sweeps through poor urban neighborhoods will allow Trump's "law and order" administration to brag that his get-tough policies are getting criminals off the streets, even if those "criminals" are nothing more than non-violent drug users.
Third, increased arrests and convictions will lead to a greater need for prison space, which of course means more for-profit prisons. Corrections Corporation of America, the country's largest for-profit prison company, says marijuana legalization hurts their bottom line. Sessions reportedly once said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was alright until he found out they smoked pot. The war on legalized and medical marijuana that is coming promises to work out nicely for the bottom line of those who profit from incarceration.
Finally, the whole notion of a crime wave plays well to the GOP's racist base. Rural white Trump supporters who have never been to cities like New York or Boston seem convinced that urban areas are dangerous hellholes where good folks fear to go. Watching police arrest an endless string of people of color on the nightly news allows them to believe that their heroes are cleaning up those terrible "ghettos" that Trump referred to during the campaign. Little do they know that the violent crime rate in urban areas is similar to that of rural areas. They also don't know that most American cities, including Trump's favorite target when talking about crime, Chicago, are much safer places now than they were 20 years ago.
The Trump/Sessions claims about crime put them in a comfortable spot politically. If the recent upward movement in the crime rate turns out to be the blip that experts believe it is, and the rate once again begins to move downward, Sessions and his boss can declare that their programs have been successful, and possibly push for even more draconian law enforcement to keep things moving in the right direction. If the rate does continue to climb over the next year or two Sessions can proclaim that his prediction of a permanent increase has come true and still push for tougher policing. They literally can't lose, no matter how things play out. The losers will be the people, most of them poor and of color, who will become the pawns in this game.