Study finds big decline in U.S. homicide rates

PITTSBURGH — Homicide rates in the U.S. significantly dropped for white, black and Hispanic populations between 1990 and 2010, a new study has found, and the most dramatic declines occurred in the two minority groups.

The study revealed that three of the most significant social trends over the past 20 years — mass incarceration, rapid immigration and growing wealth inequality — all contributed to the reduction in the gaps between the white homicide victimization rate and those for blacks and Hispanics.

As a result, the black-white homicide victimization rate gap decreased by 40 percent, the Hispanic-white gap dropped by 55 percent and the black-Hispanic gap shrunk by 35 percent, according to the study to be published Thursday in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

“There is good news here — not only have the gaps closed, but they’ve closed in a good way,” said Michael Light, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University. “They also could have closed if there would have been more white homicides, which no one would think is a good thing.

“That said, there’s still a sizable gap there that we certainly can’t ignore. So, there’s good news but a lot of work still needs to be done,” said Light, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology.

The study, which used data from 131 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas, found the following:

The white homicide victimization rate declined by 1.7 homicides per 100,000 whites — from 4.8 white victims per 100,000 whites in 1990 to 3.1 in 2010, for a 35 percent decrease.

The black homicide victimization rate declined by 13.4 homicides per 100,000 blacks — from 33.9 black victims per 100,000 blacks in 1990 to 20.5 in 2010, for a 40 percent decrease.

The Hispanic homicide victimization rate declined by 5.8 homicides per 100,000 Hispanics — from 12.4 homicide victims per 100,000 Hispanics in 1990 to 6.6 in 2010, for a 47 percent decrease.

Co-author Jeffery Ulmer, professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State University, said the study — like others before it — puts the lie to claims, such as those by Republican front-runner Donald Trump, that immigration increases crime.

“It’s just not true,” said Ulmer, who has a Ph.D. in sociology. “I really wish people would stop claiming that immigrants, particularly Hispanic immigrants, lead to more crime, that immigration is an engine of crime. It’s not, and we’re just the latest study to find this.”

In fact, the study found that an influx of immigrants actually decreases homicides. “People who decide to come here are not people with strong tendencies toward violent crime,” Light said. “They are coming here for educational opportunities, employment opportunities and opportunities to help their families.”

The study noted “that black foreign-born residents increase informal social control and strengthen community institutions, such as churches and schools, or invigorate social capital networks, as has been proposed occurs among Hispanic immigrants, thus decreasing the black rate toward the white rate.”

The study also showed that the increasing racial/ethnic disparities in incarceration rates were associated with significant reductions in black-white and black-Hispanic homicide victimization rate gaps. However, the authors were quick to caution against drawing the conclusion that even more incarceration would produce even more benefits because the findings have to be viewed in a larger context.

“While our results suggest that incarceration has reduced the race gap in homicide over the past two decades, it is highly unlikely that these gains have outweighed the devastating impact of mass incarceration on minority communities given the mounting evidence of the collateral consequences of the prison boom for exacerbating broader patterns of racial/ethnic inequality,” the authors wrote.

As for wealth disparity, the authors said, “While it is clear that racial/ethnic gaps in affluence expanded dramatically in recent decades, we find little evidence that affluence inequality, in contrast to gaps in disadvantage, is related to racial/ethnic differences in homicide.”

Ulmer said, “It’s about poverty and segregation and unemployment and family disruption at the local level. In other words, how the 1 percent lives doesn’t seem to matter much in the number of homicides.”

The study suggests, Light said, that public policies “should focus on improving community conditions in minority areas through various means such as economic investment and housing equality, as well as spending on education, drug treatment and work training programs.”

Because of “entrenched and contemporary racial disadvantage in U.S. society,” the study cautions “against the overly sanguine conclusion that racial differences in homicide are likely to be eliminated in the near future.”

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