What does the FBI crime report mean for criminal justice reform?
Contrary to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others who suggest it shows the need for a 1980s-style crackdown on crime, the FBI’s just-released report for 2016 — showing that violent crime has increased for the second consecutive year — does not actually demonstrate that we are experiencing a violent crime wave.
Moreover, the administration’s policy preferences threaten to undo reforms that are succeeding at the state and local levels. Even staunch Republican strongholds have pioneered new approaches to issues like jail overcrowding — crafting policies designed to shrink incarcerated populations. Policymakers should ignore Sessions’ calls to ramp up prison populations and to return to failed policies from a bygone era.
The uptick in violent crime in 2016 was small, rising just 4.1 percent from 2015. But multiple studies on crime rates in recent years conclude that variations of this size are normal and do not indicate a national epidemic. In fact, violent crime is still 12.3 percent lower than it was 10 years ago. Meanwhile, property crimes, which make up the lion’s share of overall crimes, dropped for the 15th year in a row.
Violent crime rates are substantially worse in large cities. Still, the increase in violent crimes is being driven by a handful of urban areas, and largely only by a select few communities within those cities. We shouldn’t ignore trends in neighborhoods in Baltimore and Chicago — the pattern of violence in these cities is tragic and requires our fullest attention. But we’re far from a catastrophic outbreak of crime across the nation. Americans are safer today than they have been at almost any time in the past 25 years.
The attorney general’s steadfast belief in a crime wave and his skepticism that “small fry” offenders even exist both undergird his support for hawkish crime policies: increasing incarceration populations, slapping harsh sentences on offenders and failing to distinguish between dangerous and nonviolent offenders.
Meanwhile, bail-reform movements, which seek to reduce the number of low-level jail detainees, are gaining momentum across the country. The guiding principle behind bail reform is that we throw too many people in jail who shouldn’t be there.
While local jails do convicted individuals, usually serving short sentences, about 70 percent of jail populations are pretrial defendants who have not been convicted of a crime. Many are held simply because they can’t afford bail, even though recent data show that pretrial jailees often are detained for nonviolent offenses.
This situation makes us less safe. Detaining low- and moderate-risk defendants, even for a few days, correlates strongly with higher rates of new criminal activity. The likelihood that a defendant will reoffend increases with the length of their detention. Meanwhile, wealthy offenders who can afford bail often walk free. In one study, nearly half the defendants considered “high-risk” or dangerous were released, simply because they could afford bail.
In one notable example, New Jersey recently replaced much of its cash-bail system with algorithmic risk assessments. New Jersey judges now use the Arnold Foundation’s Public Safety Assessment (PSA) software, which uses individualized data to assess a defendant’s pretrial risk and recommend whether they should be released, detained or released with surveillance. Since the system’s implementation earlier this year, the state’s jail population already has fallen by 15.8 percent, while violent crime fell by 12.4 percent.
Kentucky similarly uses a pretrial risk-assessment system, which the Pretrial Justice Institute analyzed in 2010, finding its failure to appear and rearrest rates — 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively — were among the best in the nation. After further reforms in 2013 that included adopting the PSA, one Kentucky legislator estimated taxpayer savings of $30 million from downsized jail populations, while keeping FTA and rearrest rates among the lowest in the country.
Local legislators also are focusing on how the criminal justice system treats individuals with drug and mental health issues. Law-and-order types often lack sympathy for behavioral-health defendants. Sessions has expressed that he believes just about all nominally nonviolent drug offenders are actually violent, and that the only reason they lack violent records is that they accepted plea deals. His views on drug offenders probably explain why he once sought to make second-time drug offenses punishable by death.
Yet evidence suggests that many inmates are incarcerated without a public-safety justification, and mental-health problems are rampant among jail detainees. We also know that pretrial detention can substantially increase mental-health detainees’ odds of reoffending, and that even brief stays in jail correlate harrowingly with suicide.
To remedy the influx of detainees with rehabilitative needs, Texas expanded drug courts, which allow users to forgo incarceration if they agree to comprehensive supervision, drug testing and treatment. Texas’ reforms saved taxpayers more than $3 billion, while crime rates have plummeted to a 49-year low and recidivism dropped steadily.
Participating defendants in Washington, D.C.’s newly implemented mental-health court were 36 percent less likely than the comparison group to be arrested again in the year after completing the program. As part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, more than 30 counties — from Palm Beach, Florida, to Spokane, Washington — along with the states of Connecticut and Delaware, are making changes to their jail systems by diverting mental-health and drug offenders, reducing reliance on cash bail and minimizing the number of nonviolent offenders in pretrial detention.
The massive hike in incarceration rates in the 1980s helped bring down crime, though many other factors likely contributed. However, the collateral consequences of mass incarceration are obvious. It tears apart families, drives up government expenditures and, most importantly, it damages public safety.
Many in the administration will use these new statistics to justify an old school war on crime. But they would be demonstrably wrong to claim that there is a crime wave, and their tactics to solve crime will only exacerbate it. Legislators and criminal justice policymakers would do well to ignore them.
Image by Andriy Blokhin