America Is Safer Today Than It Has Been in Decades

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Crime-SceneBy Natasha Camhi and Ames Grawert

Anyone who watched Monday night’s presidential debate might think we’re losing the war on crime. “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in Hell because it’s so dangerous,” Donald Trump said. “You walk down the street, you get shot.”

It’s a scary notion. But it’s simply not true.

New data from the Brennan Center for Justice show that crime remains near all-time lows, and despite an increase in murder in a handful of cities, America is still safer today than it has been in decades. Today’s violent crime rate is around half of what it was in 1990.

That’s not to say that all is well. Our criminal justice system is dysfunctional, overcrowded and outdated. The U.S. makes up about 5% of the world’s population but accounts for 25% of its prison population. Persons of color are still vastly overrepresented in our jails and prisons. For decades we have used prison as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime—even though we know that alternatives to incarceration work better to both reduce recidivism and prevent crime.

In Monday night’s debate, both candidates had a lot to say about crime and the role police have to play in fighting it. These are important issues. But we also need a plan to confront the broader problems affecting justice in our country.

That starts with a clear understanding of where crime is falling, where it is rising and why. Despite frightening headlines, there is little difference between overall crime rates this year and last. Violent crime is projected to rise by 5.5% in 2016—driven largely by increases in Chicago and Los Angeles. And in a dramatic illustration of just how widely crime rates can vary year-to-year, two cities that drove the national murder rate last year, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are projected to see significant decreases this year. It’s true that murder is rising in some major cities: according to a new FBI report, the murder rate rose about 10% in 2015, and four cities accounted for 20% of that increase. As Trump noted Monday night, Chicago is one of them. We can’t ignore that. But it’s still too early to tell if this is a long-term trend.

In light of this data, premature panic on crime risks distracting politicians and voters alike from the key question in this election. What can we do to secure the gains we’ve made against crime while addressing violence where it remains?

Trump has yet to propose a way to combat crime while reforming the system—a cause that the Republican Party and its leadership, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Chuck Grassley, both support. That didn’t change Monday night. Instead, Trump doubled down on his support for New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, saying it “brought the crime rate way down.” The data show otherwise: after stop-and-frisk ended, New York continued to become even safer.

Clinton has openly acknowledged the need to end mass incarceration and laid out several ways she would change criminal justice policy. Yet, given the severity of the problem, now is not the time for incremental change. The situation requires bold, broad-based reform.

One such reform is to take federal funding and direct it to states and cities that bring down crime and incarceration together. Right now, there are $8 billion in federal criminal justice grants run largely on autopilot, subsidizing more arrests, more prosecutions and more incarceration, without taking measure of public safety benefits. Legislation to correct these funding incentives and refocus our policies on crime reduction—a “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act”— could improve public safety and achieve a 20% reduction in imprisonment nationwide. We know this is doable: over the last decade, 27 states have cut crime and incarceration on their own.

Other solutions recognize that we can support police, maintain public safety and build a fairer criminal justice system, all at the same time. Ask police officers, and they’ll tell you—one way to do that is by reducing incarceration for low-level offenses, giving officers the discretion to focus on violent crime.

We must also restore public trust in communities, where the bonds between law enforcement and the people they serve have frayed. Again we can turn to police officers, many of whom have already implemented “community policing” programs to bridge the divide. Repairing this fraught dynamic is crucial in the fight for a fairer, more equitable system.

And lastly, we should tackle the social ills that we know cause crime in the first place—such as structural poverty and lack of opportunity. Brennan Center reports have consistently shown that disadvantaged cities struggle the most with crime. Police agree: “You show me a man without hope, I’ll show you a man who’s willing to pick up a gun,” Chicago’s chief recently said.

Formulating and implementing sensible criminal justice policy is only possible if we understand the reality of crime, and if we accept that the system needs to be reformed. As the presidential race continues, the candidates need to do both of these things. In getting the facts straight and focusing on meaningful change, we can bring about the equality and safety the citizenry deserves.

This article ran on Brennan Center for Justice, republished by permission

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13 thoughts on “America Is Safer Today Than It Has Been in Decades”

  1. Davis Progressive

    New data from the Brennan Center for Justice show that crime remains near all-time lows, and despite an increase in murder in a handful of cities, America is still safer today than it has been in decades. Today’s violent crime rate is around half of what it was in 1990.”

    so everything else is just posturing either to win votes or to dismiss the concerns of blm.  that’s the bottom line.  crime is low, black neighborhoods are doing better than they have, the problem is biased policing has destroyed trust in an important institution.

    1. quielo

      “so everything else is just posturing either to win votes or to dismiss the concerns of blm.” Since racial discrimination is at it’s lowest level ever, according to your logic, there is no reason for BLM either.

  2. Jerry Waszczuk

    Hispanics are living in Hell because it’s so dangerous,” Donald Trump said. “You walk down the street, you get shot.”It’s a scary notion. But it’s simply not true.
    By watching the local  TV news from Sacramento,  Stockton and Modesto every day than I could conclude that  Donald Trump is not far from the true and I would rather not go to inner city at evening for walk .

    1. Don Shor

      How does the U.S. crime rate compare to countries that have lower rates of incarceration?

      Most of the discussion of crime in the US involves misuse of correlation.

      1. Frankly

        Crime rates are not reported with any global standards.  It is really impossible to compare.

        From this http://www.numbeo.com/crime/rankings_by_country.jsp we are up there.

        I heard a report today that the teenage birthrate in the US has fallen significantly.  There does appear to be some correlation with birthrate and crime.   When you look at a list of countries by crime rate, it matches up pretty well with the same by birthrate.  The Freakanomics dudes connected the drop in crime rates to Roe V Wade.  This makes a lot of sense given the age groups that tend to be involved in crime and the fact that they tend to come from poor families, poor neighborhoods and fatherless families.

        It is my opinion that we need to police these neighborhoods with two-three times the number of police, but more community policing.  But I don’t support reducing sentencing.  I think that is foolish.  The solution is to prevent the young men from getting into a life of crime in the first place.  But they also need other pursuits.  We need a Marshall plan to bring back manufacturing from China and Mexico and put them in these low economic areas.  We need to completely reform the school systems in these neighborhoods.  We can’t keep swinging the pendulum back and forth and do these young people nor society any good.

        1. Lower crime so activists get law enforcement and the judicial to back off.

        2. Which leads to higher crime and then other activists demand tougher law enforcement and sentencing.

        Raising boys to men takes tough love and discipline.  It seems we are trying to take a matriarchal turn at the very worst time.

        1. Robert Canning

          Frankly says: “…I don’t support reducing sentencing. I think that is foolish.”

          Why is it foolish?

          Here are some facts to consider:

          1. Recidivism rates drop dramatically after age 40 suggesting that keeping the vast majority of individuals in prison past that age (except in some cases) doesn’t have much impact on crime rates (particularly violent crime).

          2. The costs of imprisoning someone for many years only increases as they age. Felons have more chronic illnesses and medical problems than the public in general and prison healthcare is way more expensive than healthcare in the community. (It is worth noting that the ability to treat a “captive” population for communicable diseases is one advantage of prisons, but I don’t think we as a society want to incarcerate individuals so they can be treated for tuberculosis, HIV, or Hepatitis C.  And didn’t we decide decades ago to get rid of sanitariums?)

          3. As of today, prisons and jails provide little in the way of tertiary treatment for criminal thinking and behaviors. These are, as you point out, things that should be done with primary prevention programs in the community – good parenting, lowering poverty rates, education, etc.  All those good things. But prisons are not good places to change behavior. And that’s not just an opinion, there is a lot of research on how poorly prisons do this stuff.

      2. Robert Canning

        Comparing our country’s crime rates to those of most other countries is like comparing apples and oranges. The demographic make-up and general culture differences drown out the “real” differences and make most of those comparisons meaningless. The better comparisons are within our large country and by carefully controlling for sociodemographic differences.

  3. South of Davis

    Frankly wrote:

    > Crime rates are not reported with any global standards. 

    Expect David and DP to ask you to “prove” that Russia, Syria Iran and China do not report every crime (and political prisoner) to Amnesty International.

    Different cultures tend to have different crime rates.  I have spent time in Japan, Africa and Northern Europe.  Crime in Japan is low, crime in Africa is high and crime in Northern Europe is somewhere in between.  In most US neighborhoods with lots of people of Japanese decent crime is low, in neighborhoods with lots of people of African decent crime is high and in neighborhoods with mostly people who’s ancestors came from Northern Europe crime in typically somewhere in between.

    1. Robert Canning

      South of Davis – what is your conclusion about the reasons these communities have differing crime rates? And do you know this from the statistics on crime in these neighborhoods? Do you think it has something to do with the genes of the people in these neighborhoods?

       

      1. South of Davis

        Robert wrote:

        > what is your conclusion about the reasons these

        > communities have differing crime rates?

        I don’t have a “conclusion” do you?

        > And do you know this from the statistics on

        > crime in these neighborhoods? 

        Do you really need to ask this question?

        It is hard to believe that anyone is not aware that not only are neighborhoods with lots of Japanese Americans safer than neighborhoods with lots of African Americans but the areas with lots of Japanese Americans also have a a lower high school drop out rate and higher test scores than the areas with lots of African Americans.

        P.S. If you want some local info ask a Davis High teacher if Japanese American students or African American students get sent to the office more frequently and who has higher test scores on average.

  4. Tia Will

    Frankly

    But I don’t support reducing sentencing.  I think that is foolish.  The solution is to prevent the young men from getting into a life of crime in the first place.”

    It depends on what you mean by “reducing sentencing”. If you mean sentencing in terms of 3-5 year intervals, you might have a point. Especially if these individuals were participating in some form of intensive skills/job training and re entry program. Unfortunately, what longer sentences in this country frequently means is decades pressing out license plates. For me, it makes no sense to keep individuals in prison ( for non violent crime) into their 40s and beyond for crimes committed in their late teens and twenties given that the tendency to commit crime drops with age. There is no deterrent effect on the youths still on the streets most of whom do not yet have the mental capacity to truly appreciate what life might look like two decades in the future.

    Raising boys to men takes tough love and discipline.  It seems we are trying to take a matriarchal turn at the very worst time.”

    This is nothing more than your usual “men strong “/ “women weak” tripe. It is the keyboard equivalent of you pounding your chest and roaring. I raised my son without the help, support, or “tough love” of his father whose primary contributions were to model for him how to lie and cheat. I know many, many other women who have successfully raised their sons under similar circumstances. It is not gender that keeps a single mother from raising an upstanding,law abiding, contributing son in our society. It is lack of resources. It is very hard to supervise the upbringing of your child if you have to work three jobs just to keep him housed ,clothed and fed. All that longer sentences for a father convicted of a non violent crime mean in this setting is a lesser chance of the mother being able to adequately supervise her son. I was able to achieve this because I was affluent enough to provide good child care when I was not available and had a job with predictable hours so even though I was away 40hrs/week, everyone knew that when I was there, I was completely there and my standards ( as high as those of any man I know) were enforced whether I was home or not because I could afford it.

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