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crime wave
Trouble on the Horizon for Prison Reformers

Support for prison reform has gained momentum recently as libertarian-leaning conservatives and civil-rights oriented liberals have increasingly argued that existing criminal justice norms are too punitive and expensive for a society with crime rates at historic lows. But the tremendous backlash against police violence in the past year may have led to a spike in the violent crime rate by, perhaps, reducing cooperation between police and the public and discouraging police from using certain tactics. The Economist reports:

Murders always increase in summer in America’s cities … but this summer has been particularly bloody. In July 45 people were murdered in Baltimore. That was the worst month the city has experienced since August 1972, when the population was almost 50% larger than it is today. And Baltimore is not alone […]

In Milwaukee, one of America’s most segregated cities, twice as many people were killed in the first half of 2015 as in the same period last year. In St Louis, the centre of protests against police since last year, the figure climbed by 60%; in New Orleans, by 30%; in Washington, DC, by 18%; in New York by 11%. The trend is not uniform: Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego have seen declines in the number of murders in the first half of this year. But the trend is widespread enough to concern police chiefs, several of whom met in Washington to discuss rising gun crime on August 3rd.

As the Economist says, it’s too early to know whether the country is facing a sustained crime wave or merely a temporary uptick in certain troubled cities. Hopefully it turns out to be the latter. But if murder rates stay elevated, the cause of bipartisan criminal justice reform—which we at TAI broadly support—could lose momentum very quickly.

The U.S. only came to the point where leading politicians of both parties are calling for reform because of the steep drop in crime that took place over the last two decades. From the 1970s through the 90s, when violent crime was upending the nation’s social fabric, a large majority of the public was crying out for tougher criminal justice policies. If high rates of murder, rape, and robbery return to America’s cities, public opinion could well swing back in the tough-on-crime direction. The new figures coming out should be a warning to criminal justice reformers: Proceed with caution.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Let’s maintain a clear distinction between violent crime and the victimless crime that is filling our jails. The reforms required are quite different, and should be treated separately.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s said that we’re supposed to be having less violent crime because of the presence of more guns in society. If that theory is valid, we have to assume the current uptick is a fluke and it will be fine to go ahead with reform and incarcerate less people and for shorter periods of time.

    • Boritz

      “It’s said that we’re supposed to be having less violent crime because of the presence of more guns in society.”

      I have noticed at the gun shows I attend that there is no fighting over parking spaces or any other form of rudeness. Everyone is on their very best behavior.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Does that work as well in parking lots for stadiums, stores, restaurants, concerts, fairs, theaters and casinos?

  • Kevin

    I think it’s a lot more complicated than “prison reform” vs “tough on crime”. Further I think it’s necessary to separate fiscal arguments for reform from the civil liberties arguments.

    Upon closer inspection, the fiscal case for moderate reforms looks quite weak. Reducing sentences for drug and nonviolent crimes simply won’t make much of a difference in the prison population in most states and hence will have limited fiscal impact. To really reduce costs violent offender sentences need to be made MUCH shorter. This looks to be both foolish and politically very difficult – especially if levels of violent crime stat going back up. For some data on this see:

    The civil liberties case seems much stronger (to me at least). To my mind the problem with the war on drugs is not principally the dollars spent, but rather the corrosive effects it has on the 4th Amendment, etc. I see this only getting worse as surviellience technology gets better and new types of drugs to be fought pop up – we’re already tracking heat lamps and bottle of Sudafed. Will we eventually be tracking every possible precursor chemical? No knock warrants and midnight raids with flash-bang grenades to “preserve evidence”? I’m in favor of ending this, but am under no illusion that doing so will save money. Any cost savings on I prison ent or police (which will probably be marginal) will be offset by the need to increase spending for rehabilitation of addicts.

    A middle case between the fiscal and civil liberties arguments might be a humanitarian case – is jailing someone for many lesser (but not trivial) offenses humane? As a practical matter this doesn’t happen very often for first time offenders, but it can. For recurrent offenders it may well be necessary to protect society from chaos – see what happened to the rates of burglery in the UK when the basically stopped jailing thieves. In some ways Eric Garner was the poster child of this – he was a habitual offender of lesser offenses. Using the police and courts to enforce these laws will kill some number of people and ruin the lives of others. I would suggest the best first step here is to reduce the number of offenses on the books, many of which are simply malum prohibitum rather than than malum in se, and exist solely to please some special interest or another. Still, while these reforms should be undertaken for humanitarian reasons, they will not have a huge fiscal effect. (Our prisons are in general full of muderers and rapists, not people selling single cigarettes.)

    So, to sum up, I agree with the post that prison reformers need to be wary of a backlash they will suffer if their reforms are seen as leading to a rise in crime rates. The way forward is to focus on decriminalizing most victimless crimes (aka ending the war of drugs and much of the overweening regulatory state) while maintaining harsh punishments for violent crime but to realize that these sorts of prison reform (or sentencing/legal reform) will not substantially reduce the fiscal costs of incarceration but can allow us to maintain a liberal political system with a limited government, but one that protects its citizens from predators.

    • Fred

      The “civil liberties” argument always makes me laugh. Are you talking about the “liberty” to live in bars in your own home? To “own” your property at the whim of thieves and vandals? To lose your children to crossfire? I’m old enough to remember the early 1970s when things were that bad in many places in American and close to it in many more. All from a misguided attempt to protect a false conception of “civil liberties.” See the Santayana quote below.

  • Fred

    So let’s see. Naive do-gooders hamstring the police and reduce the consequences of committing crimes and crime goes up. To quote a famous Disney movie, “I think I’m gonna have a heart attack and die from NOT surprise!” Santayana was right; those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

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