Jeff Sessions Misrepresented Crime Statistics From His Own Department’s Report

While delivering a speech in Baltimore on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions misrepresented Department of Justice statistics in claiming there had been a 13 percent spike in the violent crime rate. The report he was citing clearly said there had been no measurable change.

Sessions started his speech on one of his favorite themes: what he sees as a troubling increase in violent crime. He noted the high rates of rape and murder in Baltimore, and reminded the audience that on the day he was sworn in, President Donald Trump ordered him to reduce crime in America.

“Violent crime is up in many places across the country,” Sessions said. “Last week, the department released its annual National Crime Victimization Survey. It shows that the rate of Americans victimized by violent crime is up more than 13 percent.”

That 13 percent figure comes from comparing the rates of violent crime in 2015 (18.6 victimizations per 1,000 people) to rates in 2016 (21.1 per 1,000). 

But the report for the 2016 National Crime Victimization Survey says on its first page that the 2016 data aren’t comparable to those for past years. And among the geographical areas that can be accurately compared, there was no increase in violent crime between 2015 and 2016. 12_13_Sessions_Survey_Misrepresentation U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits to speak at the Federalist Society's 2017 National Lawyers Convention in Washington on November 17. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

That’s because the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency within the Justice Department, in 2016 changed the counties and cities it surveys in order to better reflect U.S. Census data. And because the new areas included in the 2016 survey had higher rates of violent crime than the areas they replaced, any comparison between the two years would show an artificial increase in the violent crime rate.

“The National Crime Victimization Survey sample went through a routine redesign in 2016, which resulted in the 2016 data not being comparable to data from prior years,” the survey released last week states on its first page. “Among counties that remained in sample from the previous design, there was no measurable change in the rates of violent, serious violent, or property crime from 2015 to 2016.”

Grace Kena, one of the BJS statisticians who wrote the report on the 2016 National Crime Victim Survey, reiterated that it isn’t appropriate to compare the two years.

“It’s apples and oranges,” Kena told Newsweek of the violent crime rate in the two surveys. “The only comparison that can be made is there was no change, statistically speaking, in violent crime rates.… In those counties that remained in the survey, the rate between those two years was stable.”

The National Crime Victim surveys focus on a representative sample of Americans aged 12 and older. The surveys are different from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which is based on the number of crimes reported by local law enforcement agencies.

A Justice Department spokesman said the 13 percent figure Sessions used in Baltimore was accurate given the violent crime numbers per 1,000 people in 2015 and 2016.

“The survey shows an increase in the violent crime victimization rate both in the counties that remained in the sample and between the outgoing 2015 sampled counties and the new 2016 sampled counties,” spokesman Ian Prior told Newsweek in an email.

“The survey confirms what we've seen in the FBI's uniform crime report, which finds an increase in violent crime and an increase in murders over the last two years. These trends are troubling, and this administration is committed to reversing them and making our neighborhoods and communities safer.”

Both Trump and Sessions have been accused at times of misusing crime statistics to achieve political goals like building a border wall or passing strict immigration and “tough on crime” policies.

“The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right? Did you know that? Forty-seven years,” Trump said during a White House roundtable with local sheriffs in February. (Politifact rated that statement as “False” and noted the murder rate was much higher in the early 1990s.)

In a Washington Post opinion piece in September titled, “Sessions's big lie on crime,” conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin highlighted a new study that contradicted the Trump administration’s argument that the U.S. was in the midst of a crime wave.

“Sessions is entitled, within legal and constitutional limits, to change enforcement policies for the federal government,” Rubin wrote. “He should not, however, use a blatant lie to justify such moves.”