In a world fraught with finger pointing and fearmongering, public discussions on crime and safety often end either in ideological echo chambers or in partisan attacks and provocative extremism. However, personal opinions on improving our justice system are rarely black and white. Many people occupy middle ground, seeking something in between “tough-on-crime” and abolishing prisons. They favor an approach that balances accountability and rehabilitation as well as fairness and effectiveness.

Unfamiliarity with laws and practices, widespread misinformation, and conflicting research leave individuals with limited perspectives on how to improve the criminal justice system. People naturally gravitate toward like-minded peers and select news sources that reaffirm their beliefs, both of which reinforce this blind spot. Our series will highlight varying perspectives, pose critical questions, confront discrepancies, and introduce new ideas to counter this issue.

Is crime increasing or decreasing? 

Even seemingly straightforward questions can prove difficult to answer. While research consistently shows a significant decrease in crime since its peak in the 1990s, most sources agree that crime rates spiked after the onset of COVID-19 and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. More recent trends are unclear. Variations in state laws, inconsistent agency reporting practices, crime under-reporting, and the impact of media coverage all contribute to ongoing ambiguity. Here are some examples.

Can fear influence public opinion?

When we feel attacked, whether by real-world threats or ideological opposition, our instinctual response is often to shut down and entrench ourselves in our existing beliefs. This can create a disconnect between perception and reality, especially when it comes to assessing threats.

For example, when high-profile or particularly heinous crimes are extensively covered by the media or continually highlighted during political campaigns, it can lead the public to believe these events are more common than they actually are. This phenomenon causes people to estimate the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example can be recalled rather than on objective data. Consequently, less prevalent crimes like child kidnappings or mass shootings may be perceived as imminent threats while everyday risks such as car accidents or domestic violence—which statistically pose greater danger—receive less attention.

Similarly, the development and growing popularity of apps like Ring and Nextdoor—where reports of suspicious behavior often outnumber those of confirmed criminal activity—has heightened public awareness of local incidents and potential crimes.

How does this impact policy decisions?

When public perception becomes distorted, sensationalism is often prioritized over practical solutions, influencing policy decisions that may not align with the most pressing needs. Consequently, resources are diverted from more prevalent (yet less dramatic) issues with a greater impact on community safety. To overcome this, we must be willing to challenge ourselves:

How does crime intertwine with other social issues? 

Some believe that social disorder due to increased homelessness, overdoses, and mental illness has increased the public perception of danger in communities. Others believe these social issues have fueled criminal behavior. Either way, social issues undeniably add an extra layer of complexity to the crime and safety debate.

Some say perception is reality; others say knowledge is power. Accepting both statements as truth, this series will approach crime, safety, and intersecting social concerns from a place of curiosity, allowing readers to uncover answers themselves. We will explore perspectives from the political “left” and “right” and provide research and data to accompany them. We will also discuss data gaps and highlight further areas to explore.

The goal is for these candid insights to encourage constructive dialogue on complex criminal justice topics. Approaching an argument as a war inevitably creates winners and losers, but thoughtful discussions and collaborative solutions can lead to powerful win-win scenarios.

This series will explore the following contentious issues impacting public safety and the justice system:

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