Myth vs. Fact: Correcting Misinformation about Crime and Criminal Justice Reform across the United States
Recently, headlines about crime trends and criminal justice reform efforts have been ripe with hyperbole, and even hysteria, with claims of a “crime pandemic,” violent criminals being released back into our communities and finger-pointing at “woke prosecutors” for driving a rise in crime. However, reality differs far from the sensationalist headlines. Here, we clarify the myths around criminal justice reform efforts and crime trends.
Myth: Crime is a pandemic across the nation.
Fact: National data shows us that robberies, burglaries, rapes and larceny decreased in 2020. National data for 2021 shows a slight decrease in both violent and property crimes from 2020 to 2021. However, experts note that due to the low-reporting rate from law enforcement agencies for 2021 data, the Federal Bureau of Investigation made large estimates, which makes it difficult to rely on these national statistics.
This same decreasing trend can be seen at the local level. A recent R Street Institute study that analyzed the crime data of six jurisdictions—Broward County, Clark County, City of St. Louis, Allegheny County, Baton Rouge and Missoula County—showed that, in a six-year time period, every single community saw a decrease in rapes, robberies and burglaries and four jurisdictions saw a decrease in larceny. Other large cities that have recently come under scrutiny for criminal justice reform efforts—such as Philadelphia and San Francisco—also saw decreases in many of these areas.
Concerningly, there was a national trend of an increase in murders, assaults and motor vehicle thefts in 2020. Some cities—such as St. Louis, Baton Rouge, Des Moines and Memphis—saw some of their highest murder rates in history in 2020. However, other cities saw a decrease over the last two years or after an increase in 2020—such as St. Louis, which saw a drastically decreased murder rate in 2021 after a record-breaking year.
Myth: Reform efforts release violent offenders back into our community.
Fact: Most reform efforts target first-time or low-risk offenders, such as prearrest diversion programs, bail reform efforts and initiatives like Nevada’s or Florida’s expanded citation authority. Efforts that may apply to violent offenders are generally limited to the elderly or terminally ill, such as compassionate release, or juveniles, such as raise the age.
Many reforms have actually been found to keep communities safer. For example, a study on Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) showed that the program decreased recidivism by 58 percent. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also has found that alternatives to arrest—such as LEAD and other prearrest programs—save money and police time that can instead be used on more violent and serious offenses.
Likewise, bail reforms help negate the detrimental impacts of pretrial detention, thereby reducing recidivism rates. Oftentimes, bail reform efforts also include expanded use of pretrial supervision and preventative detention for high-risk offenders which can limit the release options for violent offenders ending trial.
Conversely, all eyes will be on Illinois after the Pretrial Fairness part of the Safe-T Act—which eliminates cash bail for all levels of offenses—takes effect on Jan. 1, 2023. This new bail system will allow judges to determine whether individuals accused of a crime should be held in pretrial detention or released on their own recognizance based on whether they pose a flight or safety risk. That is, monetary bail conditions will no longer be an option, but tools like pretrial supervision or home detention are available if released. Pretrial detention can also be imposed “when it is determined that the defendant poses a specific, real and present threat to a person, or has a high likelihood of willful flight.” Moreover, individuals accused of forcible felonies that prohibit probation as a sentencing option if convicted—such as first-degree murder or criminal sexual assault—can be detained pretrial. Individuals accused of other forcible felonies—that are eligible for probation—could also be detained if a judge determines the accused is a threat or flight risk.
It is important that Illinois courts collect accurate data after this change and that the data is made available to the public to determine whether the bail reforms have had their intended effect and to ensure that public safety has not been compromised.
Myth: Prosecutors dismiss and decline cases because they are soft on crime.
Fact: The prosecution’s role is to uphold justice—which means that the ability to decline or dismiss a case is essential. Prosecutors decline or dismiss criminal charges for a variety of reasons. These can include lack of evidence of a crime, lack of evidence that a particular person committed the act, uncooperative witnesses, or violations of a defendant’s Fourth, Fifth or Sixth amendment rights. This prosecutorial discretion to decline or dismiss cases puts prosecutors in the best position to ensure that constitutional rights are upheld and that innocent people are not wrongfully convicted. Constitutional violations and wrongful convictions not only fly in the face of justice, but they can cost taxpayers millions.
The prosecution may also decline or dismiss cases due to staffing shortages or overburdened court dockets. That is, if time and resources are limited, the prosecution may decline or dismiss charges to ensure that appropriate time and resources are available for violent or more complex, serious charges. In some cases, limited resources may result in violations of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, forcing a dismissal.
And, of course, prosecutors may also decline or dismiss charges as a matter of policy. A prosecution office’s declinations or dismissals may be as a result of the prosecution’s use of diversion, deferred prosecution or deferred sentencing programs. These programs allow low-level and/or first-time offenders to be held accountable for their actions, but receive a dismissal of their charges should they successfully complete a program. Research shows these types of diversion programs can reduce reconviction rates and save taxpayer dollars.
Prosecution offices could also decline or dismiss cases as a matter of policy to signal that they believe changes are needed to create a more equitable or just criminal justice system. An example of this is in the City of Baltimore where the prosecution used their discretion to no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases. While this reason for dismissal and declination of charges gets the most public attention, it would be ignorant to assume—without a factual basis—that high dismissal or declination rates are due only to signaling. If studies support signaling to be a main cause of dismissals and declinations, then further research should be done as to why law enforcement arrests individuals who are knowingly not going to be prosecuted.
Myth: Only Progressives support criminal justice reform.
Fact: Republicans have led the charge on many strong criminal justice reforms at the state and federal level. Federal successes include the First Step Act—sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) to reform federal sentencing and prison sentences—and Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act—co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to “ban the box” on job applications for positions with federal agencies and their contracted affiliates.
At the state-level, conservative Florida has done incredible work in criminal justice reform. Florida is one of the few states that provides for statewide use of civil citations in lieu of arrest and prosecution. In places like Broward County, citations have been found to save law enforcement time and taxpayer dollars. In Jacksonville, Republican District Attorney Melissa Nelson implemented a policy creating juvenile citations to be the norm, not the exception. In St. Petersburg, the Chief of Police started a community responder program in which in the first six months of the program they were able to divert more than 2,750 calls from law enforcement response.
In other conservative jurisdictions, New Jersey, under Republican Gov. Chris Christie, implemented bail reform measures—that many look to now as the “gold star” model. Kentucky, under Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, passed a comprehensive felony expungement bill. And under conservative Republican State Attorney Daniel Haggar, Sioux Falls, S.D., started a pretrial services program to lower rates of pretrial detention and spearheaded efforts for adult diversion.
Safe criminal justice reform efforts just make good sense when addressing police staffing shortages, promoting fiscal responsibility and reducing recidivism. These examples of reforms in conservative jurisdictions not only show local positive impacts, but also pave the way for moderate Democrats and Progressives to do criminal justice reform safely.
Myth: Tough-on-crime jurisdictions have not seen a rise in crime.
Fact: Unfortunately, there are concerning crime trends in several traditionally “tough-on-crime” cities.
Lafayette, La., is known for its conservative values and right-of-center votes with a Republican mayor, a Republican sheriff and Republican district attorney. In 2021, Lafayette saw an increase in almost every major offense collected and reported, including almost double the number of motor vehicle thefts, a gun violence surge and two homicides after several years of none.
Similarly, in Knoxville, Tenn.—which just re-elected a self-proclaimed “tough-on-crime” district attorney—following a significant increase in murders and assaults in 2020, there was an increase in every tracked violent crime from 2020 to 2021. And in Fort Worth, Texas—where voters elected a Republican mayor, district attorney and sheriff—there was also an increase in almost every tracked violent offense from 2019 to 2021.
The rise in homicides, assaults and motor vehicle thefts over the last two years is not contained in “progressive” cities. Indeed, not all progressive cities are even experiencing the trend. Rather, it is affecting several cities across the nation, regardless of political affiliation.
Policy decisions should be based on facts and research, not hyperbole and hysteria. If myths take control of the criminal justice debate, public safety loses and we all suffer. Knowledge is power, and that power should be used to prioritize efforts to create safe changes to the criminal justice system that emphasize constitutional rights, fiscal responsibility and public safety.Image credit: Aldeca Productions