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Is the US murder rate really the highest it has been in decades?

We can probably all agree that this election season has been pretty light on hard facts. For example, it appears that some Americans have the misimpression that murder is currently at its highest rate in 45 years. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Why does that matter to a criminal defense attorney? Because when people feel that crime is rampant or rising, they tend to want to crack down on criminals. That affects the issues pundits discuss and how they get discussed. It affects what kinds of candidates run for office and how they talk about public safety. Our sense of personal safety affects how we view the world -- and how judges and juries see the world.

According to the FBI, the murder rate has been dropping steadily for decades

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program has been providing reliable, uniform crime statistics nationwide since 1930. Law enforcement from across the country report both local and federal crimes to the UCR, allowing it to provide accurate statistics to the government and the American people.

According to the latest (2014) figures published by the UCR, between 1995 and 2014 the murder rate has dropped almost every year. Moreover, even when the rate remained steady or rose slightly from year to year, the long-term trend was still a sharp decline.

The fact that the murder rate continues to trend downward even when annual rates spike is important to understand. Some people have become concerned that the substantial jump in the murder rate we saw in 2015 might indicate the long, downward trend may be reversing.

That 2015 spike is real, and it does appear to be continuing in major cities this year, according to the Washington Post's Fact Checker. Overall, however, the FBI expects this year's murder rate to plot right along that long-term downward trajectory in place since the mid 1990s.

Criminal justice experts caution that small jumps in the annual rate can be misleading. A short-term uptick may look like the beginning of a new trend, but a longer-term sample is needed in order to tell if that trend is actually real. The experts say a five-, 10- or even 20-year period may be needed in order to see the full picture.

So what is the full picture? No cause for alarm. The 2014 homicide rate in the U.S. was a bit more than half of what the rate from 20 years earlier. While we certainly have too many murders in the U.S., today's homicide rate -- comparatively -- is not especially high and does not appear to be growing.

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