Are 1,700 Families Guilty of Most Crime in Mobile, AL?

Bill Hightower, a Republican candidate for Alabama governor, made the assertion in a recent debate. While criminologists say it generally is true that a small percentage of the population is responsible for a large percentage of crime, the politician had oversimplified and convoluted a 2003 study about school suspensions.

Do 1,700 families really account for the vast majority of crime in Mobile, Ala.? PolitiFact scrutinizes that assertion, which was made by State Sen. Bill Hightower during a recent debate among Republican candidates for Alabama governor. In replying to a question about school safety, Hightower said, “In Mobile, it’s something like 1,700 families (that) generate 80 percent of the crime. We know who those families are.” Mobile has a population of about 193,000, so is a small fraction of the citizenry responsible for eight out of 10 crimes? Maybe not. Hightower’s campaign later said he was citing a statistic about school suspensions, not crime–from data 15 years ago.

In 2003, the Mobile County district attorney found that just 1,500 of the 65,000 students in the district were responsible for 75 to 80 percent of serious school infractions. The district attorney then cross-referenced the students with home addresses to identify 1,200 households. John Tyson, the DA who did the research, emphasized the behavior did not constitute crime under a criminal justice definition. Still, criminologists were not surprised by the finding. “A small percentage of the population is responsible for a large percentage of crimes,” said James Alan Fox of Northeastern University. But PolitiFact concluded that Hightower flubbed his attempt to cite the data. His point was roughly related to the 2003 research, but he did not describe it correctly by oversimplifying and convoluting the research findings about school suspensions.