America knows how to reduce crime

Not long ago, many Republicans and Democrats agreed to a series of sensible reforms to combat crime while reducing the impact of mass incarceration. During the 2000s and 2010s, hundreds of state and local reforms were passed to limit excessive confinement and promote the rehabilitation and reentry of incarcerated individuals. At the federal level, the First Step Act of 2018 shortened sentences, gave defendants additional opportunities to avoid mandatory minimum sentences, and improved prison conditions.

These changes were individually modest, but by 2019 they helped reduce the US incarceration rate to 810 inmates per 100,000 adults, the lowest level since 1995. The disparity between black and white incarceration rates narrowed by one 40% between 1990 and 2020. At the same time, crime rates remained at or near record lows.

The consensus behind pragmatic policies to reduce crime fell apart in 2020.

The consensus behind such pragmatic policies fell apart in 2020, when the pandemic struck, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, and firearms sales soared. Most importantly, violent firearms crime increased in 2020, with murders up 29% over the previous year, the largest single-year percentage increase in decades. In 2021, homicides rose again, albeit by a more modest 4%, setting all-time highs in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Portland, Oregon, among other cities.

Many progressives, outraged by high-profile incidents of police violence, embraced “Defund the Police” as their rallying cry, even as it was rejected by top Democratic leaders. Progressive prosecutors in some jurisdictions enacted policies that effectively decriminalized certain low-level, nonviolent crimes. Meanwhile, conservatives have largely abandoned criminal justice reform efforts and rallied behind President Trump’s law enforcement policy.

The challenge of rising crime

Murder and violent crime is on the rise in the US after decades of decline.

Murder and non-negligent homicide

Murder and non-negligent homicide

Murder and non-negligent homicide

Murder and non-negligent homicide

Murder and non-negligent homicide

To achieve genuine solutions to the problem of rising crime, America must return to evidence-informed pragmatism. The good news is that there are solutions available, if we can put politics aside. In a 2016 meta-review that I co-wrote with sociologist Christopher Winship, we analyzed the results of more than 1,400 studies on community violence. In addition, we interviewed dozens of people directly exposed to violence, including former gang members, police officers, relatives of murder victims, and local community leaders.

We learned three important lessons. The first is that most armed violence takes place in relatively small groups of closely connected individuals and groups. Most of this violence, often labeled as community, urban, street or gang violence, occurs between men without opportunities or hope. Similarly, violence is not concentrated in entire neighborhoods but in micro-locations, often known as “hot spots”.

We also find that gun violence responds to both positive and negative incentives. Through hundreds of studies, we found effective “hard” strategies that used targeted policing to reduce violence, as well as successful “soft” approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help even the most seasoned offenders change the way they behave. Act.

Finally, it is clear that highly publicized and deadly episodes of police violence, such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Minneapolis in 2020, have caused homicide rates to rise across the country. It’s not clear exactly why such incidents trigger widespread spikes in violence, but they do. Two credible theories involve “depolicing,” when police withdraw in response to public pressure and criticism, and “delegitimization,” when residents stop reporting crime and cooperating with police due to increased mistrust. Whatever the mechanism, it is clear that violence flourishes when communities lose confidence in law enforcement.

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So what can be done to control gun violence? The key is to combine three elements: an approach where violence is more concentrated; the balanced use of rewards and punishments; and outreach to ensure that communities view anti-violence measures as fair and legitimate.

This combination is at the heart of the single most effective strategy for combating gun violence in the community: “focused deterrence.” In this approach, community residents, social workers, and law enforcement officers work together to identify individuals and groups most at risk and communicate to them that shooting must stop. They continue to offer life coaching, job training, educational opportunities, and other forms of assistance, and if these efforts fail, they use targeted investigations, arrests, and prosecutions.

Focused deterrence works because it engages with those most at risk of violence, offers them a balanced set of carrots and sticks, and communicates the choices they face in a direct but respectful way. A systematic review of the strategy reported favorable results in 22 of the 24 cases where it was evaluated. In Oakland, California, for example, a targeted deterrence initiative called Oakland Ceasefire cut homicide rates nearly in half between 2012 and 2018.

Unfortunately, such success can be hard to sustain. In 2020, the pandemic halted implementation of Oakland’s ceasefire, then community support evaporated in the wake of local anti-police protests. Murders were up 36% that year, and the strategy has struggled to recover.

To decrease violence in the long term, cities need a collaborative effort that leverages several evidence-based strategies at once. This year, the Criminal Justice Council’s Violent Crime Task Force, which I chaired, issued a set of 10 recommendations to help local leaders form a framework to substantially reduce community gun violence in their cities. These recommendations include setting concrete goals for violence reduction, identifying and engaging the people and places where violence is concentrated, and assigning responsibility for reducing violence at the highest level, usually with the mayor or manager of the jurisdiction. .

Our group estimated that cities can reduce homicides by about 10% per year by using the right mix of strategies. This may not sound like much, but if sustained for eight years (two mayoral terms), a city could cut murders by more than half. And perhaps for the first time in history, there are sufficient funds to implement these strategies. In June, Congress passed the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which includes hundreds of millions of dollars for community action against violence. States recently pledged approximately $700 million in anti-violence programs, and cities are using part of the $65 billion in American Recovery Plan Act funds to support this work. Philanthropic funding for gun violence prevention is also increasing.

Funding alone is not enough to solve the problem. Reducing crime and violence also requires practical knowledge that is hard to come by. The Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction, which I helped launch this week with support from Arnold Ventures, will work to summarize the research on crime and violence and help cities apply those lessons. Other relevant organizations, such as the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention, are undertaking similar efforts.

Local strategies to reduce gun violence in the community could be the first step in addressing broader challenges like the ubiquity of guns and enduring poverty in the US For that to happen, we need our leaders to resist the common topics of conversation in our polarized political environment. If they can embrace the evidence about ideology, we have a chance to save many American lives.

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