In reaction to nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, law enforcement agency budgets in many urban areas were slated to be slashed in 2021.Some of the proposed budget cuts have since been abandoned in the wake of a dramatic increase in violent crime in cities.

Proponents of “defund the police” lament this development as evidence of backsliding on the police and criminal justice reforms necessary to reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities.

At the other extreme, opponents urge a return to “tough on crime” policies and sharp funding increases for both police and incarceration. They argue it’s the only way to restore law and order in American cities.

Meanwhile, statistics on violent crime paint a grim picture. Homicide rates in cities rose by an astonishing 30 percent between 2019 and 2020. Aggravated assaults and gun assaults increased by 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively, in the same period.

Rates of violent crime across the spectrum continue to rise precipitously in 2021.

But in focusing solely on how much should be allocated to law enforcement budgets, however, both sides ignore a critical question: how should law enforcement resources best be allocated to prioritize public safety and maximize the return on our investment?

It is unquestionable that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

From our decades-long failed experiment with the “War on Drugs,” we now know that concentrating police and criminal justice resources on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating low-level drug offenders is extraordinarily expensive, yet fails to reduce violent crime or drug abuse.

In hindsight, we also know that “broken windows” policing strategies that focus scarce government resources on arresting and prosecuting low-level offenders for public disorder crimes like vandalism, panhandling and vagrancy do not deter violent crime or make our neighborhoods safer.

Faced with a surge in violent crime, it’s to recalibrate our reliance on outmoded crime control policies that have proven to be costly and unproductive.

To that end, effective, alternative sanctions that hold low-level offenders accountable but divert them from protracted criminal justice involvement must be available to the police.

Instead of arrest and incarceration, evidence-based initiatives should be expanded that allow police to divert low-level drug offenders directly to treatment, or to issue civil citations that hold criminal charges in suspension if an offender agrees to report to and successfully complete a drug treatment program.

Likewise, pre-arrest diversion and citation programs that require offenders to perform community service, engage in community-based initiatives, or to pay a fine or restitution should be used to hold offenders accountable for low-level misdemeanors like shoplifting, turnstile jumping, vandalism and trespassing—offenses that may disturb public order, but pose little risk to public safety.

Investment in well-designed, evidence-based pre-arrest diversion and citation initiatives to address low-level offenses would maximize the public safety return on taxpayer dollars.

It would:

  • Reduce the costs of prosecution and incarceration;
  • Promptly connect offenders to drug abuse treatment and community-based services to reduce recidivism;
  • Prevent disruptions in employment and education;
  • Eliminate trauma experienced by individuals and their families due to arrest; and
  • Improve community trust and relationships with police that are essential to crime control.

Most importantly, it would allow overwhelmed, understaffed police officers to focus more time and resources on detecting and preventing violent crime, especially in poor communities of color, where our most vulnerable citizens are being devastated by the current rise in violence.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic—and resulting debt, recession and looming inflation—state and local governments are under intense financial pressure to do much more with less money.

By learning from past mistakes, however, we can use the challenges of this moment as an opportunity to realign criminal justice policies with our priorities of reducing violent crime, decreasing incarceration and conserving government resources.

Using alternative, evidence-based sanctions, in lieu of arrest and incarceration, to address low-level, non-violent offenses is a common sense, practical means by which we can work toward achieving these goals.

If we are serious about addressing the surge in violent crime, the time to implement these reforms is now.