By David M. Greenwald
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.