Comment: 5 myths about crime, criminal justice and reforms

Recent data is being cherry-picked to make dubious claims about crime rates and efforts to reform policy.

By Laurie R. Garduque / Special to The Washington Post

The movement to end police violence against Black communities has brought heightened attention to criminal justice issues amid a global pandemic. The FBI recently released the 2019 “Crime in the United States” report, which looks at last year’s trends. The data is easily cherry-picked to push false narratives around what works — and what doesn’t — to fight crime. Here are some dangerous misconceptions to look out for.

Myth No. 1: Responses to the pandemic are driving crime rates up.

Since March, the coronavirus has created a public health crisis in jails, where social distancing is extremely challenging for people awaiting their trials. Many jurisdictions have released people who do not pose a threat to the community and have shifted their arrest strategies to keep people out of jail in the first place. Critics say the releases are leading to a rise in crime. For example, William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, argues that “releasing individuals, who by definition are not safe to be among the public, in the name of improving public welfare is nonsensical.” Similarly, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of a victims rights advocacy group, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, warns that “as the country reopens, the effect of releases will show in statistics as well.”

But the decrease in jail populations due to the coronavirus is not causing an increase in crime. Overall, crime has been steadily declining in recent years, and pandemic-related jail policies haven’t affected it. A new report from the JFA Institute looking at the impact of the outbreak on crime, arrests and jail populations suggests that reform strategies that have been in place over the past six months have reduced jail populations while not affecting crime rates. In places like San Francisco and Charleston County, S.C., the report showed that crime rates overall have not been influenced significantly by local justice systems’ responses to the coronavirus and that some crimes have fallen since the beginning of the pandemic. Studies have found that unnecessarily jailing people endangers the health and safety of individuals held in jails, those who work in jails and the broader community. Research has also shown that over-punishing people at low risk of committing more crimes turns them into people at high risk of committing more crimes; so we are paying huge amounts of money to create a public safety problem through mass incarceration.

Myth No. 2: Protests for racial justice are causing an increase in crime.

Demonstrations against the deaths of Black people at the hands of police have continued nationwide since the killing of George Floyd in May. Conservative media outlets argue that these protests are leading to an increase in crime. “What we have witnessed these past few tumultuous nights is not America. It is an anarchist’s dream,” a Washington Examiner columnist thundered in June. In the Wall Street Journal, Paul Cassell wrote: “What changed in late May? The antipolice protests that began across the country around May 27 appear to have resulted in a decline in policing directed at gun violence, producing — perhaps unsurprisingly — an increase in shootings.”

But contrary to the claims of some leaders that cities are “plagued by violent crime,” a new Center for American Progress analysis shows that violent crime rates decreased from 2019 to 2020 in more than half of the 25 largest U.S. cities, including New York and Seattle, and in some smaller metros such as Portland, Ore. The data also show that while homicide is up from 2019 to 2020 in five of the largest U.S. cities, those increases began before the protests started in June.

The protests are not causing an increase in crime; they are causing cities and counties across the country to have conversations about transformational change in their criminal justice systems, such as alternatives to police, corrections and courts.

Myth No. 3: We must remain “tough on crime.”

Some leaders say the only way to keep communities safe is to be “tough on crime” and lock up criminals. Attorney General William Barr has said that reform efforts are “pushing a number of America’s cities back toward a more dangerous past.” And in an opinion piece in the National Review, former deputy attorney general George J. Terwillenger III claimed, “Perhaps someone will figure out a way to neutralize chronic violent offenders without incarceration, but until they do the choice is simply to either put the repeat violent offender away or leave him on the street to make more victims.”

But research has shown that “tough” methods are a waste of resources. Tactics such as stop-and-frisk and the misuse and overuse of jails are discriminatory and do not keep communities safe. Someone who spends time in jail is statistically more likely to reoffend and end up back in the system. And a study from the Pretrial Justice Institute shows that as few as three days spent unnecessarily in jail can have collateral consequences for a person’s life, such as the loss of a job and health benefits and time away from family obligations. Cities and counties have been able to safely release people pretrial without seeing an increase in rates of rearrest or failure to appear. Rather than being “tough on crime,” investing in the needs of the community (and the people most affected by crime) is the most effective way to keep communities safe.

Myth No. 4: One year of crime data can show a trend.

Headlines — such as the New York Times’ “In Emptier Subways, Violent Crime Is Rising” or the Crime Report’s ” ‘Steep Increase’ in Violent Crime Reported This Year” — suggest a record year for crime and that communities are unsafe as a result. This narrative is furthered by reports that cherry-pick data to undermine reform efforts.

In reality, analyzing crime rates is complicated. As we review the analysis of annual crime trends in the FBI’s report on 2019, we must keep in mind that historical context is key to ensuring a true “apples to apples” comparison. Year-to-year crime stats do not paint the most accurate picture; trends over decades do. Pointing to a current, or even seasonal, spike in certain crimes — for example, the recent jump in homicides in cities across the country — ignores that overall crime, including violent crime and homicides, is significantly lower now than in the 1980s and ’90s.

Many factors influence fluctuations in crime rates, such as the tendency for crime to rise in the spring and summer and decline in the fall and winter, or changes in policing tactics. An uptick or downturn in any one year doesn’t necessarily signal a larger trend.

Myth No. 5: Criminal justice reform means more crime.

We’ve seen leaders hesitate to engage in criminal justice reform strategies because they seem too new, nuanced or radical. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country have been outspoken critics of policies to reduce or eliminate cash bail. Georgetown University law professor Bill Otis, nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission by President Trump, called efforts toward sentencing reform “more-crime-faster proposals.”

But cities and counties have been working for years to implement tested, data-driven reform strategies that keep communities safe while reducing the misuse and overuse of jails. These include bail reform, which, despite the naysayers, has not been found to increase crime. In research released this month by Loyola University Chicago, scholars found that a 2017 order by Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy Evans to reevaluate the use of monetary bail in Cook County, Ill., increased the percent and number of people released pretrial without any associated significant change in new criminal activity, violent or otherwise, nor any change in the amount of crime in Chicago after 2017. Though critics insist we need to choose between reform and safety, cities and counties are proving that this is a false choice; the system can be made more fair, and all communities can be kept safe.

Laurie R. Garduque is the director of criminal justice at the MacArthur Foundation.

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