There have been two major developments in criminal justice policy over the last year. First, bipartisan support for some kind of criminal justice reform peaked, with a coalition of civil-rights-conscious liberals, conservative evangelicals, and budget-conscious libertarians coming together to support an overhaul of the nation’s incarceration policies. Second, several American cities experienced a highly publicized uptick in crime. The latter development made the emerging criminal justice reform consensus look more tenuous, as conservative commentators (like Heather MacDonald) and politicians (like Ted Cruz) started to rehabilitate the language of tough-on-crime politics, citing possible evidence of an emerging crime wave. Criminal justice reformers, sensing accurately that a real and sustained increase in the crime rate could imperil efforts to reduce incarceration rates, have aggressively questioned such claims.
The Brennan Center, a liberal-leaning law and public policy think tank, has now waded into this politically fraught debate with a new report on crime rates in major U.S. cities over the past year. The conclusion: “Although headlines suggesting a coming crime wave make good copy, a look at the available data shows there is no evidence to support that claim.” Many outlets sympathetic to criminal justice reform, from the Atlantic to Slate to Mother Jones, are treating the Brennan Center’s findings as the final word on this question.
A careful reading of the Brennan statistics on crime in the 30 largest U.S. cities, however, suggests that neither side should be claiming vindication just yet. The researchers found that the overall murder rate in 2015 is likely to tick up 11 percent from 2014. This is not necessarily significant—the report highlights that it is typical for the murder rate to vary from year to year—but it is still noteworthy, seeing as the overall murder rate in these cities has declined for 19 of the last 25 years. In fact, based on the Brennan Center’s graph, 11 percent seems to be among the steepest, if not the steepest, single-year increase in the murder rate in these cities since 1990. Moreover, because the rate remained roughly constant in 2014, a crime increase in 2015 would represent the first time since 1990 that the country went two consecutive years without a reduction in the murder rate in its 30 largest cities.
If the United States were at the beginning of a new crime, we wouldn’t expect to see murder rates triple to 1990s levels in a single year. Rather, we would expect to see persistent annual increases, as was the case in the 1970s. So it seems unfair to suggest that conservative “crime wave” rhetoric is all smoke and mirrors cooked up for political reasons.
At the same time, the Brennan Center researchers found that overall crime is expected to fall 1.5 percent in 2015. Moreover, the murder rate increase is concentrated in certain cities—especially Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Baltimore. At least 11 of the 30 cities surveyed have seen their murder rates fall. So claims that America is certainly in the midst of a nationwide crime wave and ought to put all criminal justice reform efforts on hold to prevent a repeat of the 1970s are similarly unfounded.
As with most social science data on politically charged issues, the best takeaway from the Brennan report is: it’s complicated. The much-reported crime uptick may turn out to be mostly a localized phenomenon, and the 11 percent murder rate increase in 2015 could be reversed next year. Or it could be a sign of something more troubling. The only thing that seems clear is that partisans on both sides are drawing premature conclusions from the data that is available so far.