‘Myths and Realities’: Policymakers Must Avoid Temptation to ‘Oversimplify’ Crime Stats, Study Concludes

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By The Vanguard Staff

NEW YORK, NY – Although the Covid-19 pandemic complicated things, “Now more than ever, policymakers must resist the temptation to oversimplify the many factors that shape public safety and instead prioritize solutions that build an enduring and holistic form of public safety,” concluded a Brennan Center for Justice report.

“While we don’t yet have a complete understanding of recent crime trends, we can state two things with confidence. First, recent crime increases do not fit conveniently into any political narrative. Second, it is vital that we look for creative solutions to national problems. Rising crime presents a challenge to communities across the country of all sizes and types,” wrote Ames Grawert and Noah Kim.

The report, “Myths and Realities: Understanding Recent Trends in Violent Crime,” noted, “After years of decline, crime rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly violent crime,” with the caveat, “While researchers have begun to identify some of the factors that may have contributed to this upward trend, it is far too soon to say with certainty why crime rose after 2019.”

The authors caution, “This uncertainty itself should guide our understanding of crime trends today. It underscores the danger of jumping to conclusions — such as blaming specific, often newly implemented, policies or reforms.”

They cite other social problems, from homelessness to shoplifting, may affect “perceptions” of a crime wave, although some violent crime—the murder rate rose by 30 percent, assaults about 10 percent—and property crimes did rise in 2020.

“Despite politicized claims that this rise was the result of criminal justice reform in liberal-leaning jurisdictions, murders rose roughly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats. So-called red states actually saw some of the highest murder rates of all,” the Brennan study noted.

The writers also comment that “poor and historically disadvantaged communities bore the brunt of the rise in violence in 2020.”

They added, “In just one example, according to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the number of shootings doubled in the neighborhood of East New York (from 51 to 102) and nearly tripled in Brownsville (from 34 to 96). Both Brooklyn communities have been hot spots of violence for more than a quarter century. 

“These increases continue a deeper and much more troubling trend that predates 2020 — what sociologist Patrick Sharkey calls ‘the rigid geography of violence,’ in which crime remains relatively concentrated even as absolute levels decline,” said the authors.

Another interesting factoid in the report is that young people dominated murder charges, citing about “40 percent of people arrested for murder in 2020 were aged between 20 and 29.”

One study indicates that with violence rising and fewer people outside during the height of the pandemic in 2020, the risk of experiencing a violent crime on the street (measured in crimes per hour spent in public) climbed dramatically, even while the actual number of crimes committed dropped — potentially contributing to a perception of lawlessness not apparent from the raw numbers,” the Brennan study said.

“Importantly, though, not all types of crime rose in 2020. In fact, trends in violent and property crime diverged sharply from each other (as illustrated in the table above), with the national rate of property crimes reaching a record low in 2020,” the report said.

Addressing “Socioeconomic Instability and Disruptions to Community Life,” the Brennan report noted the pandemic “led to a severe recession, one categorically different from those of the past. While many white-collar workers were able to shift to remote work, people in the service industry, gig economy, and other sectors faced extended unemployment, making the Covid-19 recession ‘the most unequal in U.S. history.’”

“Those challenges were likely compounded for people with a criminal record, who face a difficult labor market even in the best of times…people and communities faced challenges in meeting basic needs, especially during the first year of the pandemic. Many endured trauma caused by sickness and death. Families faced disintegration as parents or caregivers succumbed to the disease,” the report added.

The “sudden and unprecedented hardships jeopardized the stability of families and communities alike. Combined with other disruptions caused by lockdowns and social distancing measures, they may have upset the informal social processes — such as connections to neighbors, family members, and employers — that some researchers believe help keep neighborhoods safe,” said the authors.

They cited everything from no or unstable internet, virtual meetings and other pandemic related problems which led to a breakdown in communities.

The Brennan reported strongly cautioned, “Leaders at all levels of government must avoid responding to the rise in crime with policies that have been tried in the past and failed, like unnecessarily punitive sentencing practices. There is scant evidence that these initiatives would succeed. And research has consistently shown that long prison sentences, for example, may be counterproductive and that the collateral consequences of incarceration can be disastrous.”

The United States’ uniquely destructive relationship with guns accelerates violence of all types, from gang killings to school shootings and racial terrorism against Black and Asian people, as painfully illustrated by recent events. A decades-long campaign of deregulation has made gun carrying far more common while making it harder to study — much less interdict or deter — the flow of firearms,” the report added.

Despite the new obstacles presented by this ruling, policymakers must look for ways to both stem the illegal trade of guns and limit the legal transfer of guns to people who pose a danger to themselves and others,” the report added.

The report also urges society to “[r]einvest in Communities and Social Services,” because while “[s]aving lives now must be the priority, … it would be a mistake for policymakers to overlook solutions that address the broader, ongoing social and economic needs of poor communities and communities of color.

“(E)specially as these are the same communities that bore the brunt of recent increases in violence and have struggled with safety for years. Reinvestment efforts aimed at building healthy, resilient communities may not yield immediate results. But they are critical to building safety in the long term.”

The study notes social programs are key, and can reduce crime and incarceration.

The report cites studies that show “[m]edicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which increased access to health insurance for lower-income people, reduced arrest rates as well as recidivism among people who had been to prison multiple times. (By contrast, restricting benefits such as disability income appears to have increased crime and incarceration.)”   

Finally, the report quotes research that “shows that affordable health care, particularly mental health care, reduces the likelihood that people will enter the criminal justice system. It also reduces recidivism. Recent studies have found that access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues appears to decrease the rates of both violent and property crimes. 

“Of course, treatment services — and especially mental health care — must also be affordable to be effective. Cost barriers may be part of the reason for the persistent gap between mental health needs and care. The problem is especially acute for people returning to their communities from incarceration, as they are likely to leave prison with at least one chronic health condition. These inequities must be addressed, at a minimum through programs and policies that link people leaving prison with health care benefits.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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