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Criminal Legal Reforms Didn’t Lead to Violent Crime. Saying They Did Distracts from Real Solutions.

Some point to pretrial release from jail to explain increases in homicides and other violent crimes. But as a new study shows, the data doesn't support that argument.

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It has been widely reported that violent crime — homicides in particular — has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the numbers bear that out: According to FBI data, 2020 saw a 5 percent increase in violent crime and a 30 percent rise in homicides from the previous year, occurring in both urban and rural areas.

While the spike in violence is indisputable, its cause is still a flashpoint for debate, especially in the context of the pandemic’s many social and financial impacts. Despite this complicated picture, many people point to singular explanations, often without the data to back up their claims.

One such politically popular explanation blames criminal justice reforms. In particular, those who voice this argument point to the increased use of pretrial release — the practice of releasing people charged with crimes from incarceration as their cases await resolution. This is a reform strategy that many cities and counties had safely instituted years prior to the pandemic to reduce jail populations, and also one that many state and local governments, along with the federal government, leaned on during the pandemic to reduce the spread of the virus in jails and prisons.

In a time of social unrest and increased politicization, blaming reforms plays directly to fears that many of us have about safety. What is missing, however, is systematic evidence. These claims are largely based on anecdotal examples; when one examines the numbers more comprehensively, a completely different picture emerges. National crime data, for example, show that violence increased both in places that have enacted criminal legal reforms and in those that have not — in fact, all but two states experienced an increase in homicide rates in 2020. A study examining how crime changed after reform-minded prosecutors were elected also found no detectable effect on rates of major crimes, including murders.

Beyond that, for decades historical trends have shown that incarcerating more people does not lead to community safety. Louisiana, for one, has had the second-highest incarceration rate for the past 19 years as well as the highest murder rate for the past 35. At the other end of the spectrum, New York has seen the largest decline in the prison population of any state since the mid-1990s while also having the largest decrease in murder rates. These long-term incarceration and violent-crime trends are why many criminologists agree that incarceration is one of the least effective ways to reduce crime.

A new analysis by our organization, the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance (CUNY ISLG), provides the most direct evidence to date that criminal legal reforms did not lead to violence in the wake of COVID-19. This is grounded in perhaps the most comprehensive and detailed data so far, which tracked outcomes for people released from jail before trial in 16 cities and counties implementing reform strategies as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, an initiative funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to safely reduce the overuse and misuse of jails across the country.

Looking at jail data from 2015 to 2020, the study found that after reforms were launched, three out of four people who were released were not re-booked into jail within six months. Only 2 to 3 percent were re-booked on a violent-crime charge; returns to jail for alleged homicides were even rarer, with less than 0.1 percent of people re-booked. Further, the study found that these numbers were consistent before and after the pandemic began and before and after reforms were even implemented — showing that while violence in some of these cities and counties rose in 2020, it was clearly not driven by people released from pretrial incarceration.

Blaming violent crime on criminal legal reforms without any evidence has many negative consequences, including increased political pressure to expand unnecessary, harmful and expensive incarceration practices. Equally dangerously, it diverts resources away from understanding the actual causes of crime, including the complex impact of COVID-19.

As criminologists and other researchers have begun to meaningfully dig into what caused violence during the pandemic, COVID-19 upheaval has emerged as the most comprehensive and likely explanation. The pandemic caused extreme economic and psychological strain in communities all over the country, particularly in low-income communities of color where disadvantages are already concentrated. Lockdowns disrupted day-to-day life, causing uncertainty, illness and death. Critical services and supports, such as community centers and schools, were reduced or shut down, deepening inequities that were prominent before the pandemic.

In 2021, as COVID-19 vaccines became available and pandemic-related restrictions were scaled back, the increase in murders slowed down significantly. By 2022, as society began to reopen in earnest, preliminary data shows that the murder rate had dropped by at least 5 percent. These fluctuations illustrate why it is important to look at long-term crime trends; short-term increases or decreases are nearly impossible to explain given the complexity of what drives changes, especially during tumultuous times like the pandemic. However, whatever the cause, data from the past five months shows that the rates are continuing to drop through 2023: Murder rates are down by 12 percent across 90 large cities compared to 2022.

With the uptick in violence easing as pandemic impacts wane, CUNY ISLG’s new research reinforces the notion that thoughtful, data-driven criminal legal reforms do not contribute to violence. In fact, when combined with other policies that aim to support underserved communities, reforms that move systems away from incarceration can even reduce violence. Instead of dwelling on anecdotal stories and fear, policymakers should move toward fact-based solutions that can focus limited resources on policies and programs that truly help communities impacted by violence.

Michael P. Jacobson is executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance (CUNY ISLG). A former president of the Vera Institute of Justice, he served as New York City’s correction commissioner from 1995 to 1998 and earlier as the city’s probation commissioner. Sana Khan is a senior research associate at CUNY ISLG. Previously, she worked at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene conducting epidemiological analyses on the mental health of children and adolescents.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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