The pandemic crime surge is a policing problem

Don't fall for the bad-faith campaign to cut off criminal justice reform before it really starts

(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

The last several years have seen a building movement for criminal justice reform in America, culminating in the massive George Floyd protests around the country last summer. Progressive district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco have been elected promising to cut back on cash bail, reduce the severity of sentences, prosecute crooked or violent cops, and so forth.

But reformers are running into a backlash. Krasner is up for reelection this year, and police unions are blaming him for the surge in violent crime that has happened in his city over the last year. They are backing a conservative challenger, Carlos Vega. A similar thing is happening in San Francisco, where a group of right-wing tech elites (with the typically tone-deaf slogan of "V.C. Lives Matter") are trying to recall Boudin.

These arguments are a crock. A return to brutal war-on-crime tactics will not reduce crime — that will require staying the course on reform.

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The argument from police unions and Big Tech barons is the classic reactionary position on crime from the 1980s and '90s. These reformers are supposedly being soft on crime, so the argument goes, and so the criminal class is emboldened. Therefore we need to "get tough" and start brutally punishing offenders to set an example.

Unfortunately, there are several giant holes in the argument. Take Krasner: As Joshua Vaughn writes at The Appeal, while Krasner has put through many worthy reforms (he has cut future sentences by 20,000 years compared to the prior DA) he is not even close to the radicals who think the police should be abolished altogether. Indeed, many activists have criticized him for continuing to use steep cash bail amounts for certain crimes. Krasner has not at all halted prosecution of serious crime — on the contrary, he has prosecuted over 99 percent of homicides, and over 98 percent of non-lethal shootings, in which Philadelphia police made an arrest. Unfortunately, the cops made arrests in only about 40 percent of homicides and less than 20 percent of non-lethal shootings.

(The situation appears to be somewhat different in San Francisco, where murders were up modestly in 2020, but from record lows in 2019. Homicide clearance rates are apparently not yet available there for the last year, but the tech barons' complaints center around homelessness and property crime anyway. The police there have attempted to blame Boudin's policies for a record number of drug overdoses in the city.)

The logic of the police unions is that if you punish murderers, there will be fewer murders. And it turns out that a great many criminals are escaping with impunity — it's just the fault of the police. On the raw numbers, any Philly murderer has a better-than-even chance of evading the cops. In fact, it's worse than that. Typically something like a third of murders basically solve themselves because the culprit is found at the scene, or there is very obvious evidence. Philly cops are doing barely better than that — meaning that if you kill someone and take any steps at all to cover your tracks, you're all but guaranteed to get away with it. Krasner is more than willing to prosecute violent offenders, but Philly cops are too lazy or incompetent to catch most of them.

Aside from deterrence, there is another huge confounding factor here: the global pandemic. Surely this has something to do with the crime surge over the past year — it doesn't exactly stretch credulity to think that people being stuck at home for a year in an extremely stressful situation might create conflict that occasionally spills into violence. Indeed, murders were up a lot in almost every big city in 2020, whether they had reformist district attorneys or not. I would therefore suspect that over the next year the murder rate will likely tick back down. After all, from the 1990s to the 2010s the rate of violent crime fell dramatically despite a steadily abysmal clearance rate from the police (which casts some doubt on deterrence theory, incidentally).

Investigations into policing demonstrate that the most important part of detective work is community relations. Forensic evidence is rarely decisive; what matters are detectives who are trusted by the citizenry and witnesses who are willing to cooperate. It follows that, by the logic of the police unions, the biggest obstacle to reducing crime is the terrible reputation police departments have earned for themselves by constantly hassling, abusing, and killing people. People are much less willing to talk to police when departments are constantly in the news for mercilessly gassing and beating unarmed protesters, or choking somebody to death for trying to pass a fake $20 bill.

It's obvious what police unions are really upset about. They don't care that much about crime, they are mad at being criticized and held accountable, no matter how slightly. They want to return to the pre-reform status quo where they had near-total impunity for violent misconduct or outright crimes, got endless opportunities to scam fake overtime from the state, and people were too afraid to sass them. A return to the old ways will accomplish nothing for crime control; if anything it will probably make things worse.

But this debate does bear on whether American cities will be able to actually try to control crime. Now, I am not quite sold on the most aggressive arguments for police and prison abolition. In my view, the Nordic countries demonstrate that even with an extremely robust welfare state and generous social services, it will be necessary to have some punishment of criminals.

However, that shouldn't mean multi-decade sentences in hellish prisons, as police unions tend to advocate — on the contrary, studies of deterrence demonstrate that the severity of punishment barely matters. The key strategy is catching offenders, so as to maintain the state's monopoly on violence and stop tit-for-tat feuding. In the Nordics, murder clearance rates range from 83 to 100 percent, but the sentences are light and the prisons are comfortable. In concert with all the other government services, the result is far less violent crime.

By the same token, there are many crime control strategies that don't rely on punishment at all. In Oakland, the "Ceasefire" program, which provided outreach and services to at-risk individuals, was credited by local police officials with a 50 percent drop in gun crime between 2011 and 2018. A Berkeley study of the Advance Peace nonprofit, which hires formerly incarcerated folks to conduct outreach and defuse conflict in Stockton, California, found it reduced gun homicides and assaults by 21 percent between 2017 and 2020. And as I have written before, fairly modest gun control measures would likely have an outsize impact on violent crime.

These are all promising strategies. But they will require more reform, not less — frankly, Krasner, Boudin, and other reformers have barely gotten started. In particular, it will require a total overhaul of recalcitrant police departments across the country, who seem to view crime sprees as useful political leverage they can use to escape accountability. Voters in Philly, San Francisco, and elsewhere: don't fall for it.

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