crime wave
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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