Monday, March 25, 2013

Crime in Europe versus the US

Burglar Relief
Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower
Photo by wetman
When decided to be an expat, you naturally have to decide where to move. There are many things involved in that decision (not the least of which is "where can I move"), but crime has to be one of the more important considerations. After all, with the Honduras having the highest murder rate in the world, it's probably not your first choice of destination, right?

Still, there is a difference between the reality of crime and the perception of crime. So when I pointed out Bill O'Reilly's misconception about crime in Amsterdam, I was pointing out his guess as to what life in Amsterdam was like, rather than any informed research on his part. Later, after being widely mocked, he tried to defend his comments, including offering the rather amusing excuse that "the way they do statistics in the Netherlands is different." It couldn't help but laugh at that, but there is an accidental kernel of truth there.

It's long been known that when comparing health care systems around the world, you need to be careful because statistics are often collected on different data sets, yet compared as if they're identical. We have similar problems when comparing crime rates. For example, we're hearing a lot lately about the rape epidemic in India, but according to, the United States has 17 times more rape per capita than India. What gives? On one hand, we could say that hysterical reporting has blown the issue out of proportion. On the other hand, Indian rape victims may be less likely to report the crime, or the police may be less likely to record the crime. Then there's the debate about the scale of false rape claims in the US.

In other words, it's very hard to get an objective analysis about crime. That's why I tend to be very skeptical about many reports of crime rates. However, while there is no crime that can be guaranteed to be absolutely comparable across countries, I use the homicide rate as the baseline for two reasons. First, I'm more concerned about murder than robbery. I have a better chance of recovering from one of those. Second, a dead body is a dead body. I suspect, though I cannot prove, that for most major industrialized nations, reported murder rates are probably fairly accurate. So if I were to find out that the reported murder rate of a country is ten times the reported murder rate of where I'm currently living, the actual murder rate might be different, but I do know that crime in general is probably worse. (That being said, going from .1 murder per 100,000 to 1 murder per 100,000 isn't that big of a deal ... unless you're a victim).

So if you want to consider murder rates, you can download the United Nations report on Intentional homicide, count and rate per 100,000 population (XLS spreadsheet). What I found fascinating is that for the United States, for 2010, there were 4.8 murders per 100,000 people. That's the lowest murder rate since 1995, when there were 8.1 murders per 100,000 people. Murder rates have almost been cut in half.

And how does that 4.8 figure compare to Europe? It's abysmal. If you ignore the former Iron Curtain countries (and Greenland, which was listed as part of Europe), the US far, far outstrips most of these countries in terms of murder rate. Italy? 0.9. Portugal? 1.2. France? 1.1. This is despite the fact that the United States has long had more people in prison per capita than any other nation. (In fact, the Netherlands is closing prisons due to lack of criminals). If you were to start digging into this problem, you'd be shocked at how different approaches to crime can lead to startlingly different outcomes, but that's a subject for another day.


  1. The running narrative on why the US has more people in prison is along the lines of "prison privatization has lead to harsher sentencing laws especially for victimless crimes like minor drug possession resulting in the criminalization of the powerless."

  2. And on that point, just this morning from the punditverse, a statement about relaxing marijuana laws because a lot of poor kids have their lives ruined.

  3. Old news about prisons in the Netherlands closing due to lack of criminals. Last week, it was announced the Netherlands will close quite a lot of its prisons -- for budget reasons. Inmates will be forced to share cells, and a significant amount of convicted people will not do any jail time at all; they will be placed under house arrest. To top it all off, people will have to start paying for the pleasure of being locked up.

    In other news, last week it became clear that yet again in a high profile murder case, an innocent person was found guilty and spend years in prison. Perhaps it's time to close down prisons if we're sending the wrong people to jail.

  4. Unfortunately, even murder statistics aren't as straightforward to compare as you might think. A couple weeks ago, I was googling them up while responding to a cousin's post and discovered a claim that you can't directly compare US and UK murder statistics because the US counts dead bodies, while the UK counts convictions. If that's accurate, then multiple-murders count for more in the US stats than the UK stats.

  5. I'm going to challenge the per capita rape figure here on the grounds that an epidemic can exist even when there is a humongous population not taking part in it. India's rape epidemic (and I'm completely ignorant of this fact) can still be an epidemic when you compare it to the US for the following reason:

    In absolute terms, India would need to have about 3X the amount of rapes of the US on a PER CAPITA basis because there are more people in India. This is ignoring cultural differences prevalent in India vs. the US (the US is oddly more homogeneous because of its integrated population). So, for example, if one or two provinces in India are the source of the rape statistics, it makes NO SENSE to distribute those amongst the billion-plus other people throughout the country. A rape in India is not 1/3 as damaging to the person being raped simply because there are more people in the country.

    Similarly, if 50% of the country's rapes were happening in my state, it would be a *fucking epidemic*, the rest of the 98% of the country's population be damned...

    Make sense?

    1. Similarly, if 50% of the country's rapes were happening in my state, it would be a *fucking epidemic*, the rest of the 98% of the country's population be damned...

      Best comment I have read for a while, made me LOL for real, Thx.