My View II: Will Reform Lead to Rising Crime Rates?

Mass Incarceration

Mass-IncarcerationIn recent weeks, we have seen arguments claiming that reforms like Proposition 47 and AB 109 in California have reversed long-standing trends of falling crime rates.  At the same time, many have argued that focus on policing has resulted in police less willing to confront potential suspects, and thus a rise in crime rate known as the Ferguson effect.  This week we have seen interesting developments both in a coalition of police officials coming together to put forth a new path for law enforcement and the FBI Director publicly opposing the Administration position on police tactics.

The New York Times is reporting this morning that FBI Director James Comey caught the Administration and Justice Department off guard when he said that “additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive.”

As the Times article notes, Mr. Comey’s comments lend credence to the “Ferguson Effect” theory that “is far from settled: that the increased attention on the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals.”

The striking thing is he acknowledged the lack of data “to back up his assertion and that it may be just one of many factors that are contributing to the rise in crime, like cheaper drugs and an increase in criminals who are being released from prison.”

“I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year,” Mr. Comey said in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School.

The views of Mr. Comey are not shared in the top levels of the Justice Department where “[h]olding the police accountable for civil rights violations has been a top priority at the department in recent years, and some senior officials do not believe that scrutiny of police officers has led to an increase in crime.”

The Times notes, “Among the nation’s law enforcement officials, there is sharp disagreement over whether there is any credence to the so-called Ferguson effect, which refers to the protests that erupted in the summer of 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., over a police shooting.”

The data shows a far more complex and mixed picture. For instance, in Oakland, homicides are up this year, but shootings are down and the crime rate is stable. So is that evidence of a Ferguson effect? You also have the problem of trying to analyze crime data that fluctuates year to year even, as the pattern has been downward over the last several decades.

In Washington, “homicides are also up, but violent crime and crime over all are down,” said Lt. Sean Conboy, a police spokesman. “Trying to correlate it to a Ferguson effect, I don’t believe is appropriate,” Lieutenant Conboy said.

“After civil rights leaders and the Justice Department accused the Seattle Police Department of discriminatory policing and excessive force, the number of officer-instigated stops declined and crime ticked upward, said Kathleen O’Toole, the police chief.” However, “Chief O’Toole said it was up to police leaders to insist on reversing that trend. The critiques made the department better, she said. Crime is down this year, and her city has hosted police officials from places such as Baltimore wanting to understand why.”

“There’s never been as much scrutiny on police officers as there is now,” Chief O’Toole said. “We should embrace it.”

But the Times reports, “Mr. Comey said that he had been told by many police leaders that officers who would normally stop to question suspicious people are opting to stay in their patrol cars for fear of having their encounters become worldwide video sensations. That hesitancy has led to missed opportunities to apprehend suspects, he said, and has decreased the police presence on the streets of the country’s most violent cities.”

“I’ve been told by a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video,” Mr. Comey said, ‘adding that many leaders and officers whom he had spoken to said they were afraid to address the issue publicly.’

“Lives are saved when those potential killers are confronted by a police officer, a strong police presence and actual, honest-to-goodness, up-close ‘What are you guys doing on this corner at 1 o’clock in the morning’ policing,” Mr. Comey said. “We need to be careful it doesn’t drift away from us in the age of viral videos, or there will be profound consequences.”

But the Times reports that “investigations by the Justice Department have given weight to the loudest criticisms of police behavior in Ferguson and elsewhere. Those inquiries have found that many officers unfairly singled out African-Americans for stops and arrests, and too often used force that was unjustified. Videos of deadly encounters with the police in cities such as Cleveland, New York and North Charleston, S.C., have fueled that criticism.”

Again Mr. Comey acknowledges the lack of “reliable data” making “the task of identifying trends and remedies to fix them is far more challenging. He said state and local law enforcement officials were increasingly open to providing the F.B.I. with better data so it can more accurately chart trends.”

“‘Data’ is a dry word, but we need better data,” Mr. Comey said. “And people tend to tune out when you start to talk about it, but it’s important, because it gives us the full picture of what’s happening.”

Mr. Comey’s view is but one view, however. Other groups of law enforcement actually are coming together with a plan to reduce both crime and incarceration, with the hopes that “smart policing, treatment, alternatives to prison and educational programs are what work to bring down crime.”

Bringing down crime and interactions between law enforcement and communities of color will help reduce the tensions between those communities.

In an op-ed in USA Today, Garry McCarthy and Ronal Serpas wrote that, as politicians from both sides of the aisle are calling for a reduction in imprisonment, they have more than 70 years of experience “managing crime,” and “we firmly believe that we can reduce incarceration and crime together. We know firsthand that more incarceration does not keep our country safe. Our experience and research show that good crime control policy is not about locking up everyone. It’s about locking up the right people.”

They argue, “Our experience has led us all to the same conclusion, which some may find hard to believe: We can reduce incarceration and crime at the same time. Our mission is to urge this shift across the country. We can do it. We should do it. And there are solutions to guide us.”

On Wednesday, a group calling themselves “Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration” launched an initiative uniting 130 current and former police chiefs, federal and state chief prosecutors, and attorneys general from all 50 states to urge for a reduction in both crime and incarceration.

On Wednesday a press conference was held by, among others: Charlie Beck, Chief, Los Angeles Police Department; William Bratton, Commissioner, New York City Police Department; Benjamin David, District Attorney, New Hanover County & Pender County, North Carolina; Cathy Lanier, Chief, Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department; Garry McCarthy, Superintendent, Chicago Police Department; co-chair, Law Enforcement Leaders; Charles McClelland, Chief, Houston Police Department; Ronal Serpas, former Superintendent, New Orleans Police Department; co-chair, Law Enforcement Leaders.

“As the public servants working every day to keep our citizens safe, we can say from experience that we can bring down both incarceration and crime together,” said Law Enforcement Leaders Co-Chair Garry McCarthy, Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. “Good crime control policy does not involve arresting and imprisoning masses of people. It involves arresting and imprisoning the right people. Arresting and imprisoning low-level offenders prevents us from focusing resources on violent crime. While some may find it counterintuitive, we know that we can reduce crime and reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration at the same time.”

Members of the group will work within their departments as well as with policymakers to pursue reforms around four policy priorities:

  • Increasing alternatives to arrest and prosecution, especially mental health and drug treatment. Policies within police departments and prosecutor offices should divert people with mental health and drug addiction issues away from arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment and instead into proper treatment.
  • Reducing unnecessary severity of criminal laws by reclassifying some felonies to misdemeanors or removing criminal sanctions, where appropriate.
  • Reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum laws that require overly harsh, arbitrary sentences for crimes.
  • Strengthening ties between law enforcement and communities by promoting strategies that keep the public safe, improve community relations, and increase community engagement.

“Our decision to come together reflects the deep commitment among law enforcement’s ranks to end unnecessary, widespread incarceration,” said Law Enforcement Leaders Co-Chair Ronal Serpas, former Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department. “As leaders of the law enforcement community, we are committed to building a smarter, stronger, and fairer criminal justice system. We do not want to see families and communities wrecked by our current system. Forming this new organization will allow us to engage policymakers and support changes to federal and state laws, as well as practices, to end unnecessary incarceration.”

Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration is launching at a time when crime in the United States is at its lowest levels in half a century, but our country’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world.

The new organization is being welcomed by other criminal justice reform advocates.

“Too many Americans, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, are being torn apart by our overly punitive justice system,” said Cornell Brooks, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “Seeing law enforcement officials from across the country come together to address problems in the justice system sends a powerful message. We welcome these leaders to our efforts.”

“There is no validation more important to our efforts to reduce incarceration and enhance public safety than the word of the men and women we entrust to protect our communities,” said Mark Holden, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Koch Industries. “Today, the nation’s most respected law enforcement leaders declare their support for efforts to reduce incarceration. Our current system is a disservice to them. It requires law enforcement to handle issues that aren’t necessarily criminal in nature and creates friction with the communities they serve. They deserve better than this and so do the Americans they protect and serve.”

Law Enforcement Leaders is a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Today, law enforcement joins the growing bipartisan movement of lawmakers, advocacy groups, scholars, and communities of color calling for an end to mass incarceration. Law Enforcement Leaders is a critical, and long needed, addition to our efforts,” said Inimai Chettiar, Director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    very interesting that we seem to have a group of law enforcement people who believe we don’t have to politicize these discussions and instead look for solutions that reduce crime and incarceration.

    there was a very interesting essay i saw this week questioning whether most crimes event warrant arrests – there are other approaches that could be just as effective including one used here where the da simply mailed the protesters orders to appear.

  2. Frankly

    Where do I begin?

    First, I applaud this law enforcement group for coming forward with these ideas.  I agree with every one of them up to the point of reducing punishment for crimes where material harm is done to others.

    But, I am fired up and thoroughly pissed off and disgusted at the political-media narrative being promulgated at this time.  It is a direct left/liberal/Democrat campaign strategy straight out of the rules for radicals play book.  The media is either directly involved and supportive of it, or stupidly complicit in their lazy-ass way the go about harvesting sensational story lines to sell their poor excuse for news reporting.

    And it is full of lies, untruths and damn lies.

    For example, recently Obama led a big orchestrated media event at the El Reno Federal Corrections Institution in Oklahoma where he said: “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made.

    We get the inference here… that these poor people are locked away for simply smoking dope and snorting coke like the President did.  But that does not get you locked away in any federal prison.  Not at all.

    Prior to this, at yet another NAACP conference, he said: “The real reason our prison population is so high is that we have locked up more non-violent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than every before.”

    This also a lie.  Because the state prison population (that account for about 90% of the total prison population) is 57% violent criminals, 19% property crooks and only 16% drug offenders… and a percentage of those are people involved in illegal drug sales and trafficking.

    It is true that the federal prisons are about 50% people busted for drug offenses.  But less that 1% of these were busted for simple drug possession.  The rest are in for drug sales and trafficking… many with gang member-enhanced prison time.

    In the “Black Lives Matter” movement (a Democrat political-media campaign program), the myth is that blacks are unfairly targeted for non-violent drug possession.  Another big lie.  The federal prisons hold 48% Hispanics and 27% blacks for drug offenses.  Hispanics make up 17% of the national population, and blacks about 14%.  Clearly the this Democrat campaign should be changed to “Latino Lives Matter” if it were to be honest.

    Law Enforcement is paying for their deal made with the devil.

    They unionized and elected Democrats to office so that Democrats would return the favor in high pay and benefits.  Now Democrats are using law enforcement in a media-raged race war to deflect from the truth that Democrats are controlled by the hard-left liberal wing that cares less about the plight of blacks than it does advancing a liberal agenda.

    The crappy state of inner city schools, and the crappy state of the economy that has chased away blue collar job opportunities from extreme tax and regulatory policy largess… these are the primary reasons the black community is a mess today.   And the primary responsibility for this rests on the Democrat Party led by the very first black American President.

    The Democrats absolutely know that they are toast if the truth becomes the national political narrative.  So they scheme and pull the stings of their liberal media puppets and campus officials to promulgate the lie.

    What is most shameful is all the “smart” people that lap it up.





  3. zaqzaq

    “Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration is launching at a time when crime in the United States is at its lowest levels in half a century, but our country’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world”  One could claim that there is a correlation between the low crime rate and high incarceration rate.  If the violent criminals are incarcerated then they are not committing more violent crime in the community.  

    The claim by Obama that the 6,000 federal inmates that he wants to let out are in custody for non-violent drug offenses is really misleading.  They were for significant drug sales.  Gangs have violent turf wars over territory for sales.  There is a clear link between these drug dealers and the violence that plagues the neighborhoods where they were arrested.  Remember Al Capone was finally arrested for tax evasion, a non-violent crime.  That did not mean he was not a violent criminal or that the safety of the public would not be endangered if he was released back into the community.  This is just more misleading propaganda.

  4. lotaspark

    @Frankly and @Zaqzaq: All I can say is very well said and you have hit the nail on the head!

    If the government really wants to cut down on the number of people incarcerated then work on improving education, mental health facilities, and drug use prevention in America. But once someone makes the choice to do something they know is wrong  then they should be punished so that they don’t do it again. It is Parenting 101. If all you do to a child is say “no” or “stop it”, but they don’t lose privileges or any of their freedoms,  then they will have no reason to stop their negative activity and will continue to do that and worse. Our justice system has to have teeth so that if we as a society determine that an activity should be “illegal” we mean it and plan on inforcing it, not just hoping that saying “stop it” will work. In countries that believe the appropriate punishment should be as harsh as public caning, they have barely any crime occurring. Why? Because the punishment is harsh and swift. Do I believe we should cane people? Absolutely not. But I think punishment should be harsh and swift and that will absolutely keep the residasisum rate down and prevent people from thinking a life of crime is worth it in the first place.

    Additionally, it really peeves me when people say drug crime is “nonviolent” so it doesn’t need to be punished. As if anything less than capital murder is acceptable to our society. Everything associated with drug use and drug trafficking goes against the standard health, safety, and success we want for our country and its citizens. Saying anything else is a disservice and a lie. Preventing drug use and drug crime should be important to everyone, but saying it shouldn’t be punished will propetuate its existence in the first place, thereby defeating the prevention we desire.

    1. Topcat

      If the government really wants to cut down on the number of people incarcerated then work on improving education, mental health facilities, and drug use prevention in America.

      Yes, this should be the focus for reducing the incarceration rate.  In addition, I would like to see efforts made to reduce the number of unwanted children born to impoverished, unwed teenage mothers who can’t raise them properly.

      1. Davis Progressive

        the problem is that we have ended up putting people in prison for decades on drug crimes – there has to be a middle ground between current policies and no punishment and personally i don’t think punishment is very effective without spending the money on programs for job training, substance abuse, etc. and once you have an effective drug treatment program – why do you need to punish?

      2. Tia Will


        I would like to see efforts made to reduce the number of unwanted children born to impoverished, unwed teenage mothers who can’t raise them properly.”

        I agree and would extend this to include all teenagers and all women whether married or not whose deliberate goal is not to have a child.

        We have the ability to do this.  For the first time in human history we have the ability to make having a child a deliberate decision as opposed to an “act of nature or God” depending on your point of view.

        The LARCs ( long acting reversible contraceptives) have made this a possibility.The Nexplanon ( rod placed in the arm) because of its ease of placement, long duration of action ( 3 years), highly effective nature ( 0 pregnancies in some very large studies), safety profile ( with active breast cancer as the only known absolute contraindication) and minimal side effects with full resolution on removal which is a minor procedure done in a doctor’s office have made large scale contraception for our a population a real possibility.

        If all pediatricians would promote the Nexplanon for their patient’s age 15 and up, we would have gone a long, long way towards the prevention of unplanned pregnancy thus drastically reducing both the number of abortions and the number of unwanted and/or inadequately cared for children. This would have the added benefit of less days of school and physical activate lost to pain, cramps, and anemia due to menstrual cycling and so is not just about sexuality.

        If all ob/gyn’s and internists would enquire about reproductive management choices at every visit made by their female patients of reproductive age, and encourage LARCs for those women who are not planning a pregnancy, we would have gone even further towards this goal.


  5. Tia Will


    Preventing drug use and drug crime should be important to everyone, but saying it shouldn’t be punished will propetuate its existence in the first place, thereby defeating the prevention we desire.”

    I wonder if you attended the recent presentation at the high school regarding primary and secondary prevention of drug abuse( including alcohol as well as all other recreational drugs). I wonder if you are aware of how much gang and drug related activities are engaged in and directed from within our prisons.

    Punishment in the form of incarceration is not prevention. Yes, incarceration stops that particular individual from participating in drug trafficking in the community directly. However, it does not prevent them from directing gang activity from the inside. It does not prevent them from participating in highly profitable trafficking of drugs inside the prison. And it does not prevent others from filling their spot on the street.

    Drug trafficking and related crimes are driven by demand. Primary prevention would entail stopping our children from becoming addicted in the first place. This would involve putting our money, time and energy into promoting healthy activities for our children and the best possible pre and post school activities as well as curtailing the habit of going off campus and coming back drunk or high.

    Secondary prevention would involve getting individuals who have already begun using drugs/alcohol into treatment programs at the earliest opportunity rather than doing what many parents, teachers, and other adults do which is to rationalize this as “kids will be kids” behavior until experimentation and self medicating have turned into full blown addiction.

    Incarceration does absolutely nothing to decrease demand which is the root problem. Until we admit that the primary problem is the demand for these substances, we will be on the losing side of this issue.

  6. Davis Progressive

    the professionals, those who are leading the police department have figured out that the way we are doing things is not working.  i wonder what took them so long, but i find that very telling.

  7. Tia Will


    What is encouraging is that we now have the police, school officials, drug addiction experts and a very engaged city council member all in the same room talking about these issues.

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