Last Monday’s presidential debate was interesting for a variety of reasons. To me, a particularly interesting point was the reemergence of old-skool crime risk narratives. As I explain in Cheap on Crime, the recession years were characterized by a rethinking of our ideas about crime, crime prevention, and crime control, and by a bipartisan understanding that, regardless of one’s stance on the morality of mass incarceration, it is simply not economically sustainable to punish so many people so harshly and for such long periods. This means that, in the last few years, we were exposed to new and surprising declarations from long-time conservatives arguing for more civil rights protections, a truce in the war on drugs, and sentencing reform. This is not just about money, though; new advances in neuroscience and developmental psychology have led to a rediscovery of childhood, which in turn has led to several developments in legislation and in caselaw reforming juvenile justice.
And yet, it seems like some things never change. One such thing was Donald Trump’s argument last Monday that murder rates are up. Anyone who lived through the Nixon campaign must have felt, as Yogi Berra would say, déjà vu all over again. The logic behind this old-skool crime panic argument is: crime rates are rising; the only way to stop them is by cracking down on street offenders; the best way to do it is aggressive policing in the streets. The problem is that none of these things is fairly presented or even true.
First, as my colleague John Pfaff explains in The Nation, it is statistically misleading to focus on a rise in one type of crime in the course of one year:
Despite the increases cited in yesterday’s FBI report—the rise in murders in 2015 was the largest in both absolute and percentage terms since crime started dropping in the early 1990s—the United States remains an historically safe place to live. The murder rate in 2015 is still lower than it was in 2009, and before 2009 the last time the murder rate was as low as it was last year was in 1964. Overall, 2015 had the third-lowest violent crime rate since at least 1970, and probably even before that, since our older crime stats likely understate crime much more than they do today.
Yes, crime went up in 2015. But crime remained at near historic lows in 2015, too. Both of these statements can be, and are true. Despite the rise in violent crime, we remain safer today than we have been in decades.
What happened in 2015 happened in the course of one year, against an opposite trend, and one year cannot be regarded a trend:
Because we have so much less violent crime today than in 1990, any given increase will be a bigger percent jump today than 25 years ago. If we have 100 units of something, five more is just 5 percent, but that same five-unit increase is a 10 percent jump from 50. So while the number of murders rose by 11 percent in 2015, compared to 9 percent in 1990, the total increase in murders in 2015 was about 400 less than in 1990. The percent change looks worse because we are doing so much better.
Second, there are no grounds to fear sensible nonpunitive measures. Remember the vast number of articles in California newspapers quoting cops claiming that criminals have been running rampant in the streets since the early releases of Prop. 47? The proposition passed in November 2014. It is now October 2016 and the numbers are in: there is no correlation, on a county-by-county analysis, between releases under Prop. 47 and crime rates. None. Long prison sentences, serious felony charges, and refraining from paroling people do not make us safer. At all.
Third, cracking down on suspected street offenders via aggressive stop and frisk policies is never a good idea. The odds of actually catching contraband on someone during a brief stop and patdown are very low. In New York City, where the NCLU conducted a multi-year inquiry, they found that nine out of ten people who were stopped and frisked were found to be totally innocent. The benefits of finding contraband on a small percentage of the citizenry are far outweighed by the costs of humiliation, degradation, and the loss of trust between police departments and the communities they serve. Even more importantly, as Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside demonstrates and as David Simon repeatedly explains in his public appearances, the problem is not just overenforcement: it’s overenforcement of showy, aggressive police power that comes directly at the expenses of enforcement that requires brainy, creative police work. The time and manpower spent on stop and frisk is time not spent solving murders and robberies, which are presumably the serious crimes that Trump wants us to be afraid of.
This election, Californians have an opportunity to say no to old-skool crime panic by voting on sensible criminal justice reforms that will save us money and help us treat our neighbors and fellow residents more humanely. Vote Yes on 57 to eliminate prosecutorial monopoly on trying juveniles as adults and to give nonviolent adult offenders a chance on parole. Vote Yes on 62 to eliminate the costly and failed death penalty. Vote Yes on 64 to save money on marijuana prohibition and to bring in much-needed tax revenue. Vote No on 66 to refuse a costly and dangerous death penalty “tweak” that will provide (and pay) undertrained attorneys and risk wrongful executions. Say no to unfounded crime panics. We’ve been there before and we know it doesn’t help. And say yes to sensible reforms.