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Key To Crime Decline: 'Governments Have Mainly Returned To Normal'

The national violence spike from 2020 to 2022 resulted from pandemic-related losses in staff and functionality within local governments, writes crime analyst John Roman of NORC at the University of Chicago on Substack. Roman argues that crime rates declined last year "because local governments have mainly returned to normal."

Much commentary about crime trends has focused on big investments in police and a renewed focus on specific efforts to fight gun violence, Roman says. He agrees that community-led strategies, particularly violence interruption programs, where private citizens directly intervene after a shooting to break the cycle of retaliation, have helped to reverse the 2020 COVID-19 violence spike.

Focusing on specific programs rather than the broader landscape "is like focusing on the weather and ignoring the climate—you only get so much of the picture with a zoomed-in lens," Roman says.

What most explanations for the crime decline have in common is that they are activities supported by local government. After underfunding and under-staffing caused by the pandemic, local governments have, by most measures, returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Through grant-making to community antiviolence initiatives and support for the police, bailiffs, correctional officers, and probation and parole agents, local government directly fights crime and violence.

Local government also employs millions of social workers, public health workers, teachers, and librarians who battle every day to keep young people safe and headed in the right direction, Roman says. Their ranks were decimated by COVID-19, but they are back. He says their work matters enormously in explaining the crime decline.

Why did crime and violence decline in 2023? Many of the explanations are asymmetric—they explain why crime and violence increased in 2020 but do not explain why crime rates came back down, Roman says

Huge increases in firearms sales, de-policing, and declining legitimacy of the police all explain the rise in crime but not the fall.

Changes in local government staffing and funding explain both the rise and fall, Roman maintains. This explanation "explains the data because there are tangible causal mechanisms within local government activities that explain the crime spike and decline."

In February 2020, there were 22,871,000 people employed by government at all levels. By May 2020, there were only 21,396,000. That’s a loss of 1.5 million jobs in just two months. It took until September 2023 for those jobs to return.

Of the three levels of government, the federal government is the smallest, with about three million employees out of twenty-three million at all levels.

State government, almost twice the size of the federal government, was hit hard by COVID. Hiring is now returning to early 2020 levels. Overall, about 250,000 state government jobs were lost.

The level of government that gets the least attention—local government—is the biggest, by far. Local governments employ 60 percent of all government staff, between 13 and 15 million employees, which is about five times as many employees as the federal government.

Local government was massively disrupted by COVID-19—more than one million jobs were lost. Put another way, 75% of government jobs lost during the pandemic were in local government.

Slowly and steadily over three years, the number of people working for local government has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

COVID's effect on police staffing was likely substantial. It is also clear that there were substantial changes in how police patrolled during the pandemic. In particular, proactive policing was curtailed. Local government funds court personnel, local jails, and probation and parole. All of these services were directly impacted by COVID-19.

If you believe that certainty of detection, swiftness of response, and severity of punishment have an effect on violent crime, then it is not hard to see how the disruptions from COVID would lead to more violence.

It is equally straightforward why returns to normalcy in policing, courts, jails, probation, and parole would reduce violence.

As many people work in education in local government as work in all of state and all of the federal governments put together.

The evidence that improvements in educational attainment reduces crime and violence is overwhelming.

It should be no surprise that huge reductions in teaching staff were accompanied by big increases in crime and violence in 2020 and 2021, and big declines in 2023 after a full year of full-staff in-person learning.

Community-based non-profits are influential in fighting. local crime and violence.

They are often funded by the local government. Local governments link them to training and technical assistance, create peer networks where they can learn from other direct service providers, and participate in convenings where they can learn new strategies and tactics. All of this ground to a halt in 2020. All of it is back up and running in 2023.

A continuing crime decline of the decade-long sort starting in the 1990s is very unlikely, Roman believes.

Crime and violence was going up (slowly) from 2014 to 2019, so if we are regressing to the mean, we are regressing toward an upward-trending mean, he writes.

"We have to embrace different strategies if we are going to make meaningful strides toward a safer country, Roman concludes. He says, "We have to think beyond the police and the courts and prisons ... we have to think about violence prevention s something teachers and social workers and hospital staff and librarians do and not just something the police do ... we have to think beyond individual risk factors and think about risk conditions that are imposed on whole communities by concentrated poverty and loose gun laws."


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