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Have Higher Crime Rates Killed The Criminal Justice Reform Movement?

For a brief period two summers ago, the U.S. seemed to be on the verge of a serious rethinking of its approach to criminal justice. Years of falling crime had made people open to new policies. Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that too many people were in prisons for too long, and the GOP-led Congress passed the First Step Act, aiming to reduce federal prison sentences, in 2018. A series of police killings of Black, starting with Michael Brown in 2014, had brought new attention to the excesses of policing, use of force, and racism.

Then in 2020, Breonna Taylor died in a police raid gone wrong in Louisville and George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. These deaths galvanized already shifting public sentiment, and inspired large protests. Support for Black Lives Matter, disapproval of police, and belief that Black Americans suffer regular discrimination surged.

Two years later, those demonstrations look like a high-water mark in the push for reform, not a breakthrough moment, The Atlantic reports. Rising homicide rates and changing political circumstances have sapped the demand for change. Many of the most ambitious overhauls considered after Floyd’s murder have been abandoned or reversed.

Republicans have soured on the ideas behind the First Step Act. A May University of Massachusetts at Amherst poll finds diminished support for BLM and a range of police reforms. Voters even in the most liberal cities have signaled that they want tougher anticrime policies. What’s now clear is that the support for criminal-justice reform was a mile wide and an inch deep.

The biggest change is the rise in several major categories of crime during the summer of 2020. The jump was correlated with the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns, as well as with the protests

In a Pew Research Center poll in June 2020, just four in 10 respondents viewed violent crime as a very big problem. Today, 54 percent do—and nine in 10 say it’s at least a moderately big problem.

Americans were ready to take a chance on reforms as long as they felt safe, but rising crime rates rattled confidence, even though crime nearly everywhere remains far below historical highs.

One of the many victims of this crime wave was the fledgling bipartisan consensus on criminal justice. In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned making false claims about rising crime, but he embraced the First Step Act, influenced by his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose father had been incarcerated.

Trump’s heart never seemed to be in it. After Floyd’s death, he initially condemned police violence, but quickly grasped that unreservedly backing police and warning about crime could be a useful wedge issue in his reelection campaign.

The Biden White House adopted a hands-off approach as Congress tried and ultimately failed to reach a bipartisan deal on a police-reform bill. When a draft executive order including new national standards and guidelines for policing leaked in January, the White House moved to make nice with law-enforcement groups.

Biden finally signed an executive order Wednesday that establishes a database of fired officers, bans chokeholds, and includes some other provisions, but it’s binding only on federal law-enforcement agencies—not the overwhelming majority of the roughly 18,000 police departments.

One of the most notable moments in Biden’s first State of the Union address, in March, came when the president said, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them.”

A continued retreat from reform is not certain. If crime levels off or drops, perhaps Americans will again be ready to consider reform.

Another danger is that a return of brutal policing tactics will drive down crime. Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey says now-abandoned methods can be effective at reducing crime, but unsustainably and at a great cost in justice. Tough-on-crime tactics now might “work,” as measured in numbers, but wound the nation.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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