Myths and Realities: Understanding Recent Trends in Violent Crime

Myths and Realities: Understanding Recent Trends in Violent Crime

Building a new vision of public safety

Leaders at all levels of government must avoid responding to rising crime with policies that have been tried in the past and failed, such as expanding the use of pre-trial detention or adopting unnecessary punitive practices. There is little evidence of the success of these initiatives. And research has consistently shown that long prison sentences, for example, can be counterproductive and that the side effects of incarceration can be dire.

This makes it particularly important for policy makers to understand the availability and strong support for alternative strategies to reduce crime and violence in both the short and long term. This section concludes our analysis by examining the evidence for some promising solutions. It is not an exhaustive list. Rather, it focuses on two of the serious public safety challenges of our time.

Reduce gun violence

America’s unique and destructive relationship with guns accelerates violence of all kinds, from gang killings to – as painfully illustrated by recent events – school shootings and racial terrorism against blacks and Asians. A decade-long deregulation campaign has made arms transportation much more common, while at the same time making it more difficult to study, much less forbid or discourage, the flow of firearms.

Unfortunately, in a recent ruling, the Supreme Court further undermined the ability of states to regulate the carrying of arms within their borders, jeopardizing public safety and stressing the need for local solutions in addition to state and federal regulation.

Despite this ruling, policymakers must seek ways to stem the illegal arms trade and limit the legal transfer of arms to people who pose a danger to themselves and others. For example, some states have enacted laws limiting the purchase of weapons to one per month. When implemented in Virginia, the policy appeared to reduce out-of-state arms trafficking. States could also consider banning the sale of assault weapons to young people or enacting “red flag” laws, which provide for a civil procedure for the confiscation of dangerous weapons from someone believed to pose a threat to the public security.

Local efforts will make a difference, but identifying smart and scalable solutions may prove difficult. Some jurisdictions have pursued arms buyback programs. In New York, for example, prosecutors collaborate with police and local institutions, including churches, to exchange prepaid gift cards for firearms, no questions asked. Yet these programs only serve as a brake on the millions of weapons sold in the United States in any given year. Their effects on gun violence appear to be minimal (although they may promote other community goals). Consequently, they do not replace broader and more concerted action.

Policy makers should also consider the promise of community violence intervention initiatives: programs that operate at the neighborhood level, are run by people with experience in those communities, and work directly with high-risk individuals to ward off violence. These programs have begun to attract the attention of policy makers and need the constant support of government partners to be successful.

CVIs can take many forms and function best when tailored to the needs of their communities. Some follow the Cure Violence model, in which community-drawn outreach workers “interrupt” and reduce the escalation of potentially violent encounters. Others focus on providing trauma counseling or financial support. READI Chicago, for example, addresses the specific needs of neighborhoods affected by violence in Chicago by identifying people at high risk of violence and offering them paid employment opportunities, support services and cognitive behavioral therapy.

An increasing number of evidence supports this work. New York’s Cure Violence programs, for example, have reduced gunshot wounds in two high-risk neighborhoods. And READI, who works with the people of higher risk of being involved in violence, may have reduced shootings and homicide arrests, although the researchers were unable to state that conclusion with their preferred degree of statistical confidence and, therefore, recommended caution in interpreting their results. Follow-up studies can help identify ways to improve the program.

To be sure, CVIs can be difficult to implement and even more difficult to replicate. Industry leaders point out that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A CVI that successfully reduces violence in one jurisdiction may fail in another for a variety of reasons, including a simple discrepancy between its programming and the needs of the community. Buy-in by local government and other criminal justice stakeholders is also key, as is long-term stable funding. Aside from implementation challenges, this high variability makes CVIs vulnerable to criticism.

Such criticisms should not discourage innovation at a time when creative solutions are desperately needed. Fortunately, support for CVIs appears to be growing at all levels of government. Policy makers should aim to provide stable rather than one-time funding so that organizations can plan their budgets based on it. Local governments should also explore how they can be an effective partner for CVIs.

Reinvest in Community and Social Services

Saving lives must now be the priority, but it would be a mistake for policy makers to overlook solutions that address the broader and ongoing social and economic needs of poor communities and communities of color, especially as these are the same communities that have endured. the brunt of recent violence increases and they have been fighting for security for years. Reinvestment efforts aimed at building healthy and resilient communities may not produce immediate results. But they are critical to long-term building safety.

At the state and national policy level, social programs designed to reduce poverty can be part of this solution, as they have been shown to reduce crime and incarceration. Studies show that Medicaid’s expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which increased access to health insurance for low-income people, reduced arrest rates, and reduced recidivism among people who had been repeatedly in prison. (Conversely, limiting benefits such as disability income appears to have increased crime and incarceration.) And pandemic-era social policies, such as the expansion of children’s tax credit, have only served to emphasize the harmful consequences of poverty and the ability of social spending to reduce it. Policy makers can build on this solid research foundation and, in the process, can help repair some of the socio-economic damage caused by mass incarceration.

Addressing the deep structural problems that make some communities more susceptible to violence is a generational project. No solution will go back decades of divestment. However, some steps can be taken now to kickstart the process. For example, Summer Youth Employment Programs (SYEP) have been shown to reduce crime by providing much needed income or by creating facilities and mentoring for young people during their time away from school. Generally funded by city governments in collaboration with local businesses, SYEPs offer young people paid jobs in the public, private and non-profit sectors.

Versions of these programs can be found in at least 27 of the 30 largest cities. However, SYEPs rarely serve everyone who could benefit from them. The programs also faced difficulties during the pandemic. In Boston, for example, a limited number of available jobs were offered through a lottery; only 28 per cent of the more than 4,200 young people trying to secure a position did so.

Increasing funding for these and similar programs should be on any elected official’s agenda. Some cities have already taken steps to support local SYEPs. New York City announced earlier this year that it was expanding the city’s program from 75,000 to 90,000 attendees. SYEPs can provide jobs, structure and financial support to young people in difficult times by building safer communities.

Finally, research also shows that affordable health care reduces the likelihood of people entering the criminal justice system. It also reduces recurrence. Recent studies have found that access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems appears to reduce rates of violent and property crime. Of course, nursing 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 particularly acute for people returning to their communities from incarceration, as they are likely to be released from prison with at least one chronic health condition. These inequalities need to be addressed, at a minimum, through programs and policies that link people who leave prison to the benefits of health care.

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