Commentary: The Crime Situation Is Complicated, but Overall It Is Clear the Status Quo Has Failed to Make Society Safer

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

This week we got the FBI Uniform Crime Report and it painted a picture we largely expected—it’s not that all crime went up in 2020.  In fact, property crime which, represents the vast majority of all crime, continued on its trajectory of steep decline, but violent crime went up and murders went up.

This was the point made by the Atlantic this week: “Perhaps America is in the midst of what is specifically a violence wave, not a broad crime wave. Even as violent crime rose, led by significant jumps in murders and aggravated assaults, property crime continued a years-long decline.”

“There was no crime wave—there was a tsunami of lethal violence, and that’s it,” Philip Cook, a crime expert at Duke University wrote in the Atlantic.

Still, it is hard to put a rosy picture on this—the murder rate rose by nearly 30 percent. the largest increase on record.

Why did this happen?  No one really knows.  We saw a pandemic disrupt life, we saw huge protests after George Floyd, some counterprotests as well, and a huge rise in the number of guns.

There is also evidence that, while murders are not decreasing in 2021, the rate has fallen by quite a bit.

If you look at the ten-year murder rate, you see cause for concern.  It appears that the murder rate bottomed out in 2014 at about 4.4 per 100,000 and has now jumped to 6.5 per 100,000 in 2020.  That’s pretty steep and the murder rate is now higher in 2020 than it was in 2010.

On the other hand, there is the 30-year picture.  That shows a little bit different story because, in 1991, the murder rate was just under 10 per 100,000, it fell to 4.4 per 100,000 and now it has risen some but still well below the peak.

The key of course will be the next 10 years—right?  This could look like a sharp but temporary spike, or it could be part of a return to the 1980s and before.

We see this dynamic playing out in the narratives of DAs and DA candidates.

For example, Orange County DA Todd Spitzer, who is running for reelection next year, has been running hard to try to compare his opponent, Pete Hardin, to George Gascón (LA DA) and Chesa Boudin (SF DA).

In an August tweet, Spitzer said, “SF is seeing a rise in crime, all thanks to ‘woke’ DA Chesa Boudin. Under Boudin, homicides are up, burglaries are up, and car thefts are up.”  He asks, “Do you really want ‘woke’ DA candidate Pete Hardin to bring the unsafe policies responsible for this rise to Orange County?”

But of course, the SF DA paints a much more nuanced picture of crime in San Francisco—despite the pushback and recall effort.

In a release this week from the Prosecutors Alliance—a progressive group seeking to reform the system, they point out, “The data shows San Francisco saw a 19% reduction in violent crime and a 20% reduction in property crime in 2020 while nationwide violent crime went up.”

Executive Director Cristine Soto DeBerry said, “It’s time to abandon the rhetoric and shameless fear mongering and simply look at the numbers. The data provides guidance and a path to a safer San Francisco.”

While I think they have justification in pointing out that the crime numbers are considerably more nuanced—and probably more justification in pointing out that crime is really up across the board, in red states and blue states, as well as locales with progressive prosecutors and locales with traditional prosecutors, I largely agree with Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff that this ultimately might not be the best approach.

Pfaff back in mid-September, prior to the latest release of data, tweeted, “I know I’m in the minority here, but I feel like trying to underplay a historic spike in homicides (and a likely spike in shootings) by pointing out that all OTHER crimes mostly fell is a not a great strategy for reformers.”

He argues, “It actually plays into Tough-on-Crime’s hands.”

This is similar to the point he made back in 2020 that reformers should not be tying their rhetoric to a dropping crime rate because at some point crime will go back up—as it at least partially has.

He doubled down on the point two weeks ago: “To argue that crime fell–even when murders really did rise by quite a lot–suggests that ‘reforms’ are a luxury to be indulged in only when crime is low or falling.”

Instead, he argued, “We need to lean into the rise, not recoil from it.”

And this is a point I strongly agree with: “Murder went up.  By a lot.”  And for the most part, it went up “on the status quo’s watch.”

He writes: “Murder went up in places with no reforms. It went up in places with reforms… but those reforms were always less than their detractors (and many proponents) said.”

Both points here are correct.  First of all, there really is no difference between areas with reform and areas with no reform in terms of what happened with murder.  Therefore, from a data standpoint, it’s hard to argue that reforms led to a spiking murder rate.

Moreover, as Pfaff correctly points out, one of the problems with the reforms so far is that they are only scratching the surface.

In 2020, speaking at UC Hastings, Pfaff pointed out that, besides California, with realignment, “you can’t see states that incarcerated and states that decarcerated.”

New York, for example, had huge drops in prison population: “You can’t see New York on that map. New York didn’t decarcerate, a handful of counties did.

“This is a common pattern,” he said. “Large counties are decarcerating. Small counties are not. Urban America is decarcerating. Rural America is not.”

The 200 largest DA offices handle two-thirds of felonies nationwide, he said. “So if you flip 200 offices out of 2200 offices, you flip the top 10 percent, that’s a massive change in what is going to happen.”

The problem is that leaves 90 percent of all offices untouched.

Moreover, as Rachel Barkow, an NYU Law Professor, pointed out when she spoke at a Vanguard event at UC Davis Law School in 2019, we really have not seen a lot of reform.  Mostly it is addressing low-hanging fruit with the “non-non-non” people – non-violent, non-dangerous, non-sexual offenders, which leaves most of the system untouched.

To put this another way, if someone is let out on parole or released pretrial, and they commit a serious crime, the tendency of reformers (and I will include myself here) is to say, yeah, well, that’s a small percentage of the released population.  And that is absolutely true.

But there is another story to tell that I think gets lost and is probably more important—we are not helping the people we are locking up nearly enough.  We are not providing them with the tools to be able to be released and avoid committing another crime.

We spend $85,000 a year to put people in a cage and then we release 90 percent of them at some point and 70 percent of them go back and commit another crime.  We are failing them and our taxpayers and our victims, not because we are releasing them, but because we have failed to give them skills and tools to succeed once they are released.

So I think the response from reformers to the rise of murders should really be twofold—first, that the status quo has failed because if 90 percent of the locales have not been impacted by reform and murders are rising there, then the status quo has failed; and second, that we need to go deeper with reforms because we have not changed the system enough to prevent spikes in the murder rate.

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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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9 thoughts on “Commentary: The Crime Situation Is Complicated, but Overall It Is Clear the Status Quo Has Failed to Make Society Safer”

  1. Keith Y Echols

    I think this whole analysis is flawed.  I do not believe the primary solution to crime is law enforcement.  It’s part of the solution and an important part but not the most important or most effective.

    I view Law Enforcement as a large broom designed to keep society clean and functioning.  We need them out there and I do not support reducing their presence.

    To me saying you need better law enforcement to fix the crime problem is like saying we need better mechanics to fix crappy cars being built.  

    If you want to make society safer you have to fix the root problems.  The majority of crime can be addressed through improving economic conditions for certain groups of people...or all people.   The problem is that in the “good ole days”; if you weren’t heavy duty into academics you could always at least get a decent paying job in the local factory, coal mine, etc….    So you could go on build yourself a modest living with a family etc…    But now the “working class safety net” has all but vanished.  This creates lower living standards for these workers and their kids.  Their kids then have even less of an opportunity to build fulfilling lives (either through education and profession or simply work).

    Obviously, the thing to do would be to provide decent paying unskilled labor jobs across the country.  Easier said than done.  That’s an entire discussion for another time that goes beyond Davis and even just California.

    But the next biggest impact that could effect crime in the near future would be to improve the care facilities and systems for kids in disadvantaged homes or no homes.  Extend their eligibility for state shelter and put them in vocational schools (for those that didn’t get into college).   More nation/state/local wide funding for child care, support, mentoring, tutoring….etc…  It’s these disadvantaged kids that have the highest likelihood of being part of the next crime wave….and roots in poverty seem to be major contributing factor….so try to nip that in the bud as best as possible.

    The next thing would be better socialized medical options.  I don’t want to debate the one payer nation wide system thing.  But one of the top things that send people into financial ruin are medical emergencies.  Medical limitations and the financial burdens can continue to hold back people from achieving what they want or at least being content with what they have.   If we can’t get a one payer system (and I’m not convinced it’s financially viable) we can at least better protect vulnerable people from going into financial ruin due to medical emergencies.

    Next we get to mental health support.  In the old days if you were disgruntled you’d go hangout with your buddies at the bar and talk to them or your bartender and they may give you some support or talk some sense into you (from doing something stupid and/or violent)….was it a good system?  Probably not the most efficient solution.  Today, if you’re disgruntled and unhappy, you get online and talk to others with same views and feelings as you have….it becomes an echo chamber that amplifies those feelings.  So what is needed is a (better?) social mental health safety net.  Easy online access to mental health councilors?  Maybe local mental health clinics that have a bar and serve drinks in them?

    How do we fund all of this?  I don’t know.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Today, if you’re disgruntled and unhappy, you get online and talk to others with same views and feelings as you have….it becomes an echo chamber that amplifies those feelings.

      Or, you start out “gruntled”(?) and happy, you get online and talk with others with the opposite views and feelings as you have and become disgruntled and unhappy (as it turns increasingly personal) . . . it becomes a chamber which amplifies those feelings.  🙂

      So what is needed is a (better?) social mental health safety net.

      It’s definitely not in the form of a political blog. One might argue that it creates a need for a mental health safety net.

      How do we fund all of this?

      I’d suggest “defunding” it.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        @David

        I think my views of law enforcement, reincarceration and rehabilitation have been heavily influenced by my parents.  Both of them were professionals involved in the assessment and rehabilitation in the prison system.  I wonder if your time spent writing about law enforcement and criminal detention reform has heavily influenced your views on the subject.

        For the most part, I have no problem with criminals being swept away to prison.   That’s law enforcement’s job.  Now what we do with criminals once they’ve been imprisoned is another story.  Simply locking criminals up for X amount of time  and expecting them to just behave afterwards seems stupid.  I think you either completely remove them from society or return them once they’ve been assessed to be functioning members of society.  It’s pretty basic reasoning: remove the problem and either fix the problem or keep the problem removed from the rest of society.   How and to what degree we (as a society) offer support systems for personal improvement as well as behavioral modification programs is up for debate….and we start to veer into “A Clockwork Orange” territory.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          ” I think you either completely remove them from society or return them once they’ve been assessed to be functioning members of society. ”

          It’s incredibly expensive to simply lock someone up – $85,000 per year, and the cost is rising and more importantly the cost of incarceration rises as they age and as they age, people are less likely commit additional crimes. I think except for the small percentage of truly bad people, most of the time we have much better options.

      2. Keith Y Echols

        @ Ron

        I’d suggest “defunding” it.

        Why would you defund it?  What would you defund?  How would you solve the criminal problem?

        Or, you start out “gruntled”(?) and happy, you get online and talk with others with the opposite views and feelings as you have and become disgruntled and unhappy (as it turns increasingly personal) . . . it becomes a chamber which amplifies those feelings.

        Eh, whatever….I get it from both sides.  I’ve been called a racist capitalist by one extreme side and a bleeding heart communist by the other.

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      Keith – I do agree that it should not be primarily a law enforcement issue, but right now, it is because millions of people end up in the system.  My view is there is a small number of people that need to end up incarcerated and most of the rest can be better addressed through the types of things you are talking about.  But we can’t even get there when society’s primary response is police, courts, prison.

    3. Alan Miller

      Maybe local mental health clinics that have a bar and serve drinks in them?

      How do we fund all of this?  I don’t know.

      I think Coors would be happy to fund that last one . . .

  2. Alan Miller

    Large counties are decarcerating. Small counties are not. Urban America is decarcerating. Rural America is not.”

    I never heard the word decarcerate until a couple of months ago, and the only time I’ve heard the word decarcerate is in Vanguard articles.  My spell checker has never heard the word decarcerate either.  If there was no otherwise context, I would have assumed to decarcerate means:  to get rid of automobiles.

    we release 90 percent of them at some point and 70 percent of them go back and commit another crime.  We are failing them and our taxpayers and our victims

    Or maybe they are failed people who can’t be helped.  I’m not saying all, or that we shouldn’t try new methods – but in your wording there seems to be an expectation that the government can fix all — or nearly all — broken souls.  While that’s a sweet thought, I don’t believe that.

    So I think the response from reformers to the rise of murders should really be twofold—first . . . second . . .

    And there are your talking points.

    March forth . . .

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Here is my intereview with Decarcerate Sacramento from January 2020 – https://www.davisvanguard.org/2020/01/everyday-injustice-podcast-episode-35-decarcerate-sacramento/

      “but in your wording there seems to be an expectation that the government can fix all — or nearly all — broken souls. ”

      We expect the government right now to incarcerate all broken souls. Most of the programs are not done by government, but rather private entities that government contracts with. Right now you can have a restorative justice program referred to by the Davis Police Department, but the group actually doing the program is the Yolo Conflict Resolution Center, a private non-profit.

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