The following op-ed was co-authored by R Street Policy Analyst Easton Randall.
Preliminary reports suggest the FBI’s annual crime report, expected to come out at the end of the month, will show an uptick in violent crimes for the second year in a row. Before various law-and-order pundits have a collective panic attack and declare a national emergency to combat a “violent crime wave,” it’s necessary to dig deeper into the numbers to understand what they mean.
The impulse to react emotionally to violent crime statistics is understandable, but some context is necessary. According to a Pew Research study of the FBI’s data, between 1993 and 2015, crime rates fell an impressive 50 percent. Even the last FBI report, which showed a slight increase in violent crime, showed 2015 to be the third safest year in the United States in the past two decades. Given the amazing strides police and communities have made in combating crime over the past quarter-century, relatively minor fluctuations from year to year shouldn’t set off hysteria. Yes, the crime rate rose last year, and all indicators point to 2016 also seeing an uptick in violent crime, but we are not in the midst of a crime epidemic. Any violence increase is bad and needs to be addressed with effective strategies that are fit to local drivers.
At the peak of the crime epidemic in 1980, property crime rates were nearly ten times higher than violent crime rates. Changes in property crimes therefore drive changes in overall crime rates. Property crimes fell in tandem with overall crime rates for the thirteenth year in a row in 2015, with 2016 likely again to show a decrease.
The decline in property crimes should be celebrated. Crimes such as arson, vehicle theft and burglary inflict emotional damage and economic hardship, costing victims $14.3 billion in 2015. Communities also struggle when property crimes are high, as the result is usually for businesses to flee the area, leaving consumers worse off and residents with diminished employment prospects.
Moreover, the expected increase in violent crime is minuscule and is concentrated in specific cities — and largely in just a few neighborhoods of those cities — that already deal with problems such as poverty and gang conflicts. Policymakers absolutely should focus on solutions to bring down violent crimes in these neighborhoods, but it is irresponsible to use these highly localized problems to argue there is a national crime wave.
Among the options for those cities where crime is seeing an uptick is to focus on reducing recidivism, including through reforms to jail policy. Currently, more than 11 million people cycle through local jails each year. Many are repeat offenders, suggesting we are doing a poor job of rehabilitating inmates. In fact, even short stays in jail can significantly increase one’s likelihood to reoffend. Many who go to jail, for even a day or two, risk losing their jobs and depend on the criminal connections they made behind bars to survive once released. What’s more, it’s important to note that more than 60 percent of people in local jails are awaiting trial, which means they have not been convicted of a crime.
New Jersey and Kentucky are among the states that have moved toward increased reliance on pretrial risk assessment programs to predict more accurately who can safely return to society before their trial and who ought to be detained. Local governments in both red and blue states also have introduced drug and mental health courts to divert those with health issues from jail and into rehabilitation programs. These approaches can reduce crime by keeping people out of jail who don’t need to be there, while saving taxpayer dollars. Jail diversion is no silver bullet, to be sure, and does not address all the challenges cities face with reentry, treatment, prison, and overall budget impacts. But problem cities in which repeat offenders can drive up crime rates will require creative solutions.
It’s easy to spin the FBI’s numbers in ways that strike fear into the public. Yet the reality is, the country is not being overrun by violent thugs coming to hurt us and we don’t need to prepare a mob with pitchforks to save ourselves. What we need to do is take these data seriously, and pursue those solutions most likely to actually fix the problem.
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