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Violent Crime Wave Could Swamp Prison Reform

The violent crime rate is rising in many cities—and that could mean trouble for criminal justice reformers. The New York Times is the latest national media outlet to report on surging murder rates, pulling together data from local police departments into a striking set of opening paragraphs:

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as [Milwaukee]. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

To the annoyance of some ardent police critics, the Times article also aired the possibility that the spike in violent crime could be related to protests against police violence that have rocked the nation over the past year:

Among some experts and rank-and-file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.

“The equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.

Others doubt the theory or say data has not emerged to prove it. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said homicides in St. Louis, for instance, had already begun an arc upward in 2014 before a white police officer killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson. That data, he said, suggests that other factors may be in play.

We aren’t criminologists at Via Meadia, so we won’t wade into the fierce debate about whether or not the “Ferguson effect” is real. In any case, focusing tightly on the relationship between crime and the protests over the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray strikes us as too narrow an approach. Even as these protests gained a lot traction this past year, the public had already begun to turn against many of the harsher elements of the U.S. criminal justice system, from stop-and-frisk to draconian prison sentences. Many state and local governments—including some of the ones mentioned in the Times story—have been scaling back certain tough-on-crime policies for the last several years.

Theories about the sources of the 2015 crime boomlet abound, but we wouldn’t be surprised if changes in criminal justice policy have played a role, at least in some cities. It may well be the case that the nationwide crime crackdown that began in the 1970s—as destructive as it was for many communities—really did help keep a lid on the crime rate. And it may well be that the steps taken toward reform in states like California—as salutary as they may be, overall, as a matter of policy—have caused urban crime to rise somewhat.

For the purposes of public opinion, however, it may not matter whether the statistics in the Times article can be traced to the ‘Ferguson effect,’ changing prison policies, the availability of guns, or simple random variation. As we’ve written before, this is America’s prison reform moment. Politicians on both sides are united around the moral and fiscal imperative of curbing mass incarceration—and in particular, enacting more charitable policies toward drug and other nonviolent offenders. However, we only got here because the country has enjoyed historically low—and steadily falling—crime rates for the past decade. If the latest crime boomlet turns into a boom, the criminal justice reform consensus could evaporate in a heartbeat—no matter what the source of the boom may be.

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  • Arkeygeezer

    The recent events in Furguson, New York, Baltimore, and Houston are certainly a contributing factor to the spike in murders and shootings. Politicians at both the local and national level have tried to equivocate those events giving impetus to the perpetrators of these crimes.

    I live in a mid-south city that is over 50% black. The police and city officials are mostly black. Crime has gone up substantially in black neighborhoods. We have had one white police officer gunned down by a young black male. The protest movement that originated in Furguson has been joined by other elements and academics which blossomed as the Black Lives Matter campaign. The news media enhanced the campaign.

    This has caused an increase on black on black crimes. White police officers are leaving the cities and seeking employment in the suburbs or in small towns.

    I am happy to say that the politicians, ministers, and police in my city are attacking the problem at its roots, in those neighborhoods where the killing and shootings are taking place.

    Via Meadia may not want to get into the “Furguson effect”, but it cannot deny what is happening in our country. These events affect us more than anything happening overseas.

  • Andrew Allison
  • Fred

    Of course, this rise in crime is somehow the result of the evil machinations of the Prison-Industrial Complex, so that greedy corporations can make even more money, right FriendlyGoat? Look, this is what happens when you make it difficult for the police to do their job. It’s a tragedy, but if it slows down the drive of a misguided alliance of libertarians and “progressives” to hamstring police and reduce the consequences of crime, it might save people in the long run.

  • Arkeygeezer

    If you want to see what a black racist hate group looks like; https://twitter.com/Blklivesmatter

  • rheddles

    Just another way the Obama presidency has worked to the detriment of the black population. They are worse off now than they were 6 years ago and they will be less well of in 8 years. It’s 1968 all over again, Funny what follows.

  • Harry Heller

    There are too many low level offenders in prison for too long at too great an expense. But until we adopt two real reforms – executing the really hardcore bad guys, and decriminalizing most drugs (along with mandatory implantable contraceptives for welfare recipients) – warehousing vast numbers of low lifes is the best policy response for protecting the lawful (which is more important than #blacklivesmatter).

    • elHombre

      Your first sentence is nonsense.

      • Harry Heller

        On the contrary, it is mere fact.

        • elHombre

          Judges are notoriously lenient and low level offenders who are not recidivists are not subject to mandatory sentences. Your assertion that “there are too many low level offenders in prison” is not factual “mere” or otherwise.

  • pabarge

    Who wrote this article? Why does this website not identify the author?

  • elHombre

    There may be a “fiscal imperative” driving prison reform. There has never been a “moral imperative.” Quite the contrary.

    The correlation between growing prison populations and reducing crime is undeniable and not coincidence. Nevertheless, politicians prefer to have felons on the streets spreading the cost of crime among innocents than in prison where funds must be allocated for their support by the ruling class who prefer spending that buys votes or increases their personal wealth.

    At least two-thirds of our convicted felons are already in the communities on probation or parole. Needless to say, they are far more likely to reoffend during their sentence period than those in prison.

    Prison reform has nothing to do with improving prisons. It alway means reducing the prison population. Today’s prisons, contrary to the assertions of reformers, are largely populated by the worst of the convicted violent and/or repetitive offenders. The other class of prisoners are drug dealers, who are themselves repetitive offenders who live on the cusp of violence at all times. Plea bargaining may obscure these facts, but, nevertheless, they are the facts. Which of these do we want to join the other two-thirds already on probation or parole in our communities?

    This debate is founded on stupidity or ignorance and if more offenders are released into the community it won’t matter to their victims which it is.

    • Harry Heller

      The old “warehousing” argument. Probably correct, but there are a lot of individual injustices with the enormous degree of prosecutorial discretion which exists today. What we really need are more executions, plus the return of the “chain gang”.

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