No matter how hard we try, the crime problem just keeps getting worse and worse.

Well, that’s what you might think if you get your impressions of crime from the “if it bleeds, it leads” TV news. But that impression is just wrong. In reality, crime rates (in the U.S. at least) are maintaining their 30-year lows.

The disjunction between actual crime trends (improving) and people’s perceptions (worsening) has widened in the past several years—possibly because 9/11 eroded people’s feelings of security. In both 2002 and 2003, at least sixty percent of respondents to a Gallop Gallup Organization poll responded “yes” when asked if crime rates had increased over the past year. In both years, less than a quarter of respondents believed it had fallen. Actual rates of violent and property crimes declined in both years, and homicides held roughly steady.

In some ways, the belief that crime is worsening—despite evidence to the contrary—is a reversion to the historic norm. Crime rates fell by half from 1993 through 2003. But throughout the 1990s, a majority of poll respondents still thought that crime was increasing. It was only in 2000 and 2001 that the general public started to realize that crime rates were falling. Now, with crime basically at a standstill, people are inclined to believe that it’s surging again.

To be fair, crime doesn’t seem to be at the top of the public’s agenda during this election cycle, at least in national races. The economy and international security loom larger on the public agenda. But the bigger point—that the beliefs of the public are all too often in opposition to the facts—is probably a real concern in just about every realm of public policy.