With last year’s devastating homicide spike continuing, some proponents of “progressive” criminal-justice reforms are more convinced than ever that they have the right approach. Eric Levitz, writing at New York’s Intelligencer blog, views 2020’s 30 percent year-over-year increase in murder not as a political liability but as yet another reason to support a progressive reform agenda—one that reduces the footprints of incarceration and policing.
Levitz argues that progressive policies have a track record of controlling violent crime, and that the social costs of law-and-order approaches may be too high. Neither point is persuasive. Levitz overstates the effectiveness of progressive alternatives and understates the evidence behind traditional crime control, muddling some conceptual questions in the process.
Levitz’s article is partly meant as a preemptive defense against a tough-on-crime backlash that, he says, we can expect “once the enfranchised’s sense of security is shaken.” The implication is that the pushback is coming from the rich and comfortable, not the poor and oppressed. But as historians such as Michael J. Fortner and James Forman, Jr. have shown, much of America’s turn toward law and order after the mid- and late-twentieth century crime wave was driven by those in low-income, minority neighborhoods. Levitz himself acknowledges that “a recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that concern with crime was significantly higher among the demographic groups that suffer the highest rates of firsthand victimization.”
Indeed, the debate over the homicide spike isn’t about the risk it might pose to the rights of criminals. It’s about how best to protect communities from rising violence that, in some places, has surpassed levels seen in the peak years of the early 1990s.
Levitz offers the usual battery of non-policing approaches: investing in preschool, summer jobs, and violence-interruption programs; increasing the minimum wage; expanding health insurance; and erecting barriers to firearm acquisition. The available evidence lends some support to the idea that these tactics can reduce crime. But they don’t—on their own or together—offer the same reliability and extensibility that the traditional methods of policing and incarceration do.
Levitz’s reforms are unlikely to prove consistently effective remedies to a violent-crime spike as large as the current one. Violence interruption can be a useful tool when it works, which is far from a given. In New York City’s implementation, the interrupters had an effect in one of two neighborhoods tested; in Pittsburgh, crime rates actually went up following implementation. Similarly, minimum-wage increases may be associated with an increase in property crime, instigated by the unemployment they cause among young people.
Other proposals offer potential only for small crime reductions. Take Medicaid expansion, which, one analysis showed, reduced robberies by 2 percent, aggravated assault by 1 percent, and theft by 0.6 percent against an average increase in insured adults of 6.4 percentage points. But only 11.1 percent of adults remain uninsured, suggesting that any additional expansion can be expected to have a minimal effect on the aggravated-assault rate.
To Levitz, the murder spike represents the failure of “the pro-carceral status quo,” but the trend has run against that status quo for some time. Nationwide, imprisonment and arrests declined 17 percent and 25 percent, respectively, between 2009 and 2019. Many jurisdictions have dramatically curtailed bail. Some have gone further: California engineered a mass jail depopulation, New York City announced the closure of Rikers Island, the federal government has passed sentencing reforms many times, federal investigations and monitorships of local police departments continue to grow, and progressive prosecutors have been elected in big cities across the country.
The evidence supports traditional approaches, even if Levitz pretends it doesn’t. Numerous studies have causally linked policing with significant crime declines, including a study of municipal expenditures on policing that found “reduced victim costs of $1.63 for each additional dollar spent on police in 2010, implying that U.S. cities are under-policed.” Levitz tells readers that such analyses don’t actually militate against his argument about how proper cost-benefit analyses shake out, because they fail to account for less visible social costs associated with law enforcement; but the same can be said about assessments of the toll that violence takes on communities—which goes far beyond the property damage and costs associated with injuries sustained by the victims. Indeed, studies have documented that violence affects everything from mental health to academic performance.
Other studies have shown that merely increasing police presence produces crime declines in and around the affected areas. A study of increased police presence due to high-terror threat alerts in and around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. found that “an increase in police presence of about 50 percent leads to a statistically and economically significant decrease in the level of crime on the order of 15 percent.” An analysis of increased patrols around the University of Pennsylvania found that “extra police decreased crime in adjacent city blocks by 43–73%.” And an extensive review of the literature on proactive policing by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “hot spots policing strategies,” “focused uses of stop, question, and frisk (combined with other self-initiated enforcement activities by officers),” and “broken windows interventions that use place-based, problem-solving practices” all produced statistically significant crime declines in the short term.
As for incarceration, Levitz hangs his hat on the claim that “long prison sentences do not deter crime, and are actually counterproductive for public safety.” But the evidence on deterrence is more mixed than his piece lets on. A 2007 study of California’s three-strikes law, for example, found 17 percent to 20 percent declines in the felony arrest rates of those with two strikes on their records. Levitz’s claim about the counterproductivity of incarceration seems to hinge on data from the federal system, which don’t get us very far, given that nearly 90 percent of all prisoners are housed in state facilities, to say nothing of the important differences between the federal and state inmate pools (federal inmates are slightly older and generally have less serious criminal histories).
In any case, deterrence is but one potential benefit of incarceration. Another is the incapacitation of offenders, which Levitz does not address. Even modest estimates of the portion of the 1990s’ great crime decline that can be attributed to incarceration put the number at around 25 percent. And the data remain clear that, for high-rate, highly dangerous offenders, incarceration can have large crime-prevention benefits.
According to Levitz, “safety and compassion have been deemed competing goods” in America. Not really: safety and compassion for victims are perfectly compatible. It’s misplaced compassion for perpetrators that undermines safety, particularly for those who already enjoy less of it. Levitz hypothesizes that those costs are outweighed by the social benefits of leniency. We disagree.
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