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By Janel Davis March 5, 2013

Numbers right about sentencing, but cause is elusive

Has being tough on crime gone too far, or are strict sentences for criminals the key to reducing crime?

Two decades ago, Georgia revised its sentencing guidelines and established mandatory sentences for a range of serious crimes. Those sentencing laws have led to longer sentences and high prison populations, along with exploding taxpayer costs. Efforts are currently under way to dial back the laws and give the courts some flexibility on mandatory minimum sentences.

But some officials, such as Paul Howard, the district attorney for Fulton County, which includes the city of Atlanta, want to keep the strict sentencing rules and touts their benefits.

"In Atlanta, since 1994 when the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ took effect, the violent crime rate has dropped 62 percent," Howard said last month in an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Crime numbers are always a wily topic, and the data can be manipulated in various ways to elicit a desired response. PolitiFact Georgia decided to see whether Howard’s claim was on target.

The DA’s support of the mandatory minimums is based on his criticism of sentencing disparities. "Black defendants are at least 30 percent more likely to be in prison for the same crime," Howard said in the AJC article. "Whenever judges are allowed to sentence at their discretion, the disparity increases."

One of the best ways to avoid racial disparities is to make the sentences the same, he said.

Under then-Gov. Zell Miller, sentencing revisions were approved that implemented sentences of 10 years with no parole for committing one of the "seven deadly sins," which included rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery. A second conviction mandates a life sentence without parole.

Howard provided PolitiFact Georgia with two charts showing Atlanta’s crime rate from 1994 to 2010. The data was derived from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, according to Howard’s office.

The FBI data show that the category of violent crime includes four offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Violent crimes are defined as those offenses that involve force or threat of force.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, published annually, are compiled from data voluntarily provided by police departments. About 92 percent of U.S. police departments report their data, said James Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University.

For Atlanta, the FBI data showed:

1994: population, 411,204    violent crimes: 14,684        violent crime rate: 3,571
2010: population,420,003    violent crimes: 5,749        violent crime rate: 1,368.8

With slight rounding, the decrease in the crime rate - the number of incidents per every 100,000 residents -- was 62 percent. We ran the FBI numbers for an additional year and found that through 2011, the decrease in the violent crime rate was slightly less, at about 60 percent.

In the past decade, Atlanta’s population estimates have differed from those issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, which revised the city’s population downward. Howard uses the higher population figures for from 2001 to 2009. But his claim involves the crime rate between two specific years, 1994 and 2010, and his population figures match those census figures used by the FBI. The difference has no impact on his claim. Using the revised lower population for 2009, for example, would have changed the decrease in the violent crime rate to 57 percent.

Criminology experts we talked to agreed that the portion of Howard’s statement about the decreased crime rate was true, but that the question lies with causality.

"It’s certainly possible that the increase in sentencing has played a role, but you can’t without a lot of confidence say that that is the full reason why crime rates have changed," said Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who has extensively studied the issue. Berman opposes mandatory sentencing.

And it’s also notable that violent crime rates dropped not just in Atlanta, but in other places across the country, including places without mandatory sentencing, said Robert Friedmann, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at Georgia State University.

GBI crime data show that from 1994 to 2010 the crime rate for violent crimes decreased in the state by 36.7 percent. And through 2011 the rate decreased 40.5 percent.

Nationwide, violent and property crimes decreased for the fifth straight year, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2011. In 2010, the number of violent crimes in the country dropped to the lowest rate in nearly 40 years.

So does Howard prove his case?

The Fulton district attorney supports strict mandatory minimum sentencing. One of his arguments is the notable 62 percent decrease in violent crimes in the two decades since the sentences have been in place.

FBI data support his claim. The violent crime rate from 1994 to 2010 did indeed drop 62 percent; and through 2011, the decrease in the violent crime rate was about 60 percent. On just the numbers, Howard is correct. But criminology and law experts say it is almost impossible to tie the decrease directly to this one issue of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Howard’s numbers are accurate, but his statement needs additional information. We rated his statement Mostly True.

Staff writer Karishma Mehrotra contributed to this article.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "A question of justice: A closer look at Georgia’s sentencing laws," Carrie Teegardin and BIll Rankin, Feb. 17, 2013

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Changes could be in store for mandatory minimum sentences," Aaron Gould Sheinin and Bill Rankin, Feb. 14, 2013

Email Atlanta crime data received from Fulton County district attorney, Feb. 18, 2013; Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Crimes still falling in metro Atlanta, U.S.," Andria Simmons, Oct. 30, 2012

The New York Times, "Steady decline in major crimes baffles experts," Richard A. Oppel Jr., May 23, 2011

Phone interview, Robert Friedmann, professor of criminal justice, Georgia State University, Feb. 25, 2013

Phone interview, Douglas Berman, professor of law, Ohio State University, Feb. 28, 2013

FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Crime in the U.S.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation, statewide crime rates 1980-2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Census shock result of flawed estimates,"  Johnny Edwards and Craig Schneider, April 27, 2011

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Numbers right about sentencing, but cause is elusive

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