Beginning in the 1990s, crime rates began a steady three-decade long decline that ended coincidently with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, writes criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University in a new set of papers published by Arnold Ventures about "the relationship between community safety, the justice system, and reform."
No one has yet provided anything close to a convincing explanation for the interruption of the great crime drop, Nagin says, noting that homicide and auto theft rates increased, while robbery and larceny rates declined still further from their pre-pandemic levels, and the trend in burglary rates remained unchanged.
Without a clear understanding of why some crime types increased as others decreased and still others remained unchanged, sharp shifts in policy are not justified, Nagin contends.
In the past, spikes in crime, or horrific crime incidents, have prompted draconian increases in punishment severity, increases which were not grounded in solid science surrounding their effectiveness. Nagin hopes that mistake will not be repeated.
He worries that the homicide spike might trigger still further unwise policy changes escalating sanctions for violent crime. Increases in already long sentences cannot be justified based on either their deterrent or incapacitation effects.
Such policy responses have resulted in a dramatic increase in the representation of lifers in U.S. prisons, with no material return in improved public safety. In 1984, the number of lifers totaled 34,000, or 4.8 percent of the total state prison population across all 50 states. By 2020, the numbers of lifers had swollen by nearly a factor of 5 to 161,512—12.9 percent of the total state prison population.
Even as the total prison population has modestly declined since 2008, the number of lifers has increased by 13 percent. This is a serious problem, says Nagin. The slow accumulation of lifers in U.S. prisons is turning them into old age homes.
Between 1993 and 2016, the percentage of people aged 50 or older in prison has quadrupled from 5 percent to 20 percent, and the percentage of people 40 or older in prison has more than doubled.
What is an evidenced-based response to the two year-long spike in the homicide rate—a spike that has been concentrated in disadvantaged minority neighborhoods?
Nagin says studies show that police if properly used are effective in preventing crime. One form of intervention, directed patrols, is effective. Directed patrols involve assigning additional officers to high-crime areas at high-risk times and allowing them to focus on proactive investigation and enforcement (e.g., intensified traffic enforcement and field interrogations of suspicious persons).
Directed patrols are effective in curbing gun violence. Directed patrols will not be popular in some circles, Nagin acknowledges, because they require the use of confrontational policing tactics such as stop, question, and frisk and intensified traffic enforcement.
He cites five keys to mitigating the negative consequences of using confrontational policing tactics. First, there must be effective communication with community leaders and institutions such as religious and merchant groups.
Second, police operations should be coordinated with non-police community-based interventions intended to interrupt or diffuse the sources of violence of the violence in public spaces, for example gang rivalries.
Third, It is imperative that the duration of the operation be short-term. Once the spike has subsided the operation must be wound down. Its continuation should not be rationalized as necessary to averting reoccurrence of violence.
Fourth, directed patrols must be used in a targeted fashion, unlike the City of New York Police Department’s controversial broad based use of stop, question and frisk.
Fifth, confrontational policing must be seen as a last resort tactic that is used only when use of other non-confrontational policing tactics have been tried and found to be ineffective.
Nagin's conclusion: Crime control policy in the last decades of the 20th Century was largely guided by the misperception that mass incarceration was an effective and socially efficient policy for preventing crime. It is not. Gradually, there has been a growing recognition that police, if properly deployed, were effective in preventing crime.