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.