Myths and Realities: Understanding Current Trends in Violent Crime

Myths and Realities: Understanding Current Trends in Violent Crime

Building a new vision of public safety

Leaders at all levels of government must avoid responding to the rise in crime with measures that have proven and failed in the past, such as expanding pre-trial detention or using unnecessary punitive practices. There is little evidence that these initiatives would be successful. And research has shown time and time again that, for example, lengthy prison sentences can be counterproductive and that the collateral effects of imprisonment can be catastrophic.

Therefore, it is particularly important for policymakers to understand the availability and strong support of alternative strategies to reduce crime and violence in both the short and long term. This section concludes our analysis by reviewing the evidence for some promising solutions. It is not a complete list. Rather, it focuses on two of the serious public safety challenges of our time.

reduce gun violence

America’s uniquely destructive relationship with guns is accelerating violence of all kinds, from gang killings to—as recent events painfully illustrate—school shootings and racist terrorism against Blacks and Asians. A decades-long campaign of deregulation has meant that gun-carrying has become far more common, while the flow of firearms has become more difficult to investigate, let alone stem or deter.

Unfortunately, in a recent decision, the Supreme Court further undermined states’ ability to regulate the carrying of guns within their borders, endangering public safety and underscoring the need for local solutions on top of state and federal regulations.

Despite this ruling, policymakers must seek ways to both curb the illicit arms trade and limit the legal transfer of arms to individuals who pose a threat to themselves and others. For example, some states have enacted laws that limit gun purchases to one gun per month. When implemented in Virginia, the policy appeared to reduce the state’s arms trade. States could also consider banning the sale of assault weapons to young people or enacting “red flag” laws that provide a civil procedure for confiscating dangerous weapons from someone believed to be a threat to public safety represents.

Local efforts will make a difference, but finding smart, scalable solutions can prove difficult. Some jurisdictions have implemented gun buyback programs. In New York, for example, prosecutors are working with police and local institutions, including churches, to exchange prepaid gift cards for firearms, no questions asked. But these programs only serve to slow down the millions of guns that are sold in the United States each year. Their impact on gun violence seems minimal (although they may further other community goals). As such, they are not a substitute for broader, more concerted action.

Policymakers should also consider the promise of community violence intervention initiatives—programs that operate at the neighborhood level, are delivered by people with experience in those communities, and work directly with high-risk individuals to deter violence. These programs have begun to attract the attention of policymakers and require sustained support from government partners to be successful.

CVIs can take many forms and work best when tailored to the needs of their communities. Some follow the Cure Violence model, in which outreach workers drawn in from the community “interrupt” and de-escalate potentially violent encounters. Others focus on providing trauma counseling or economic support. READI Chicago, for example, addresses the specific needs of Chicago’s violence-affected neighborhoods by identifying people at high risk of violence and providing them with paid employment opportunities, support services and cognitive behavioral therapy.

A growing body of evidence supports this work. New York’s Cure Violence programs, for example, reduced gun violence injuries in two high-risk neighborhoods. And READI working with the people greatest risk becoming involved in violence may have committed fewer shootings and arrests for murder—although the researchers could not reach this conclusion with the preferred level of confidence, and therefore cautioned when interpreting their results. Follow-up studies can help identify opportunities to improve the program.

Of course, CVIs can be difficult to implement and even more difficult to replicate. Industry leaders emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A CVI that is successful in reducing violence in one jurisdiction may fail in another for a number of reasons, including a simple mismatch between its programming and the needs of the community. Consent from local government and other criminal justice actors is vital, as is stable long-term funding. Aside from implementation issues, this high variability makes CVIs vulnerable to criticism.

Such criticism should not discourage innovation at a time when creative solutions are urgently needed. Fortunately, support for CVIs seems to be growing at all levels of government. Policy makers should aim to provide stable rather than one-off funding so that organizations can plan their budgets accordingly. Local governments should also consider how to be an effective partner for CVIs.

Reinvest in communities and social services

Saving lives must be a priority now, but it would be a mistake for policymakers to overlook solutions that address the broader, ongoing social and economic needs of poor and communities of color — especially since these are the same communities that have been bearing the brunt of late have increased violence and have been struggling with security for years. Reinvestment efforts aimed at building healthy, resilient communities may not yield immediate results. But they are crucial for building security in the long term.

At the state and national policy level, pro-poor social programs can be part of this solution, as they have been shown to reduce crime and incarceration. Studies show that the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, which improved access to health insurance for low-income people, reduced arrest rates as well as reduced recidivism rates among repeat incarcerators. (In contrast, curtailing benefits like disability income seems to have increased crime and incarceration.) And pandemic-era social policies, like expanding the child tax credit, have only helped reduce the damaging effects of poverty and the ability of the Underlining social spending make it smaller. Policymakers can build on this strong foundation of research — and help reverse some of the socioeconomic damage caused by mass incarceration.

Solving the deep structural problems that make some communities more vulnerable to violence is a generational project. No solution will reverse decades of divestments. However, some initiatives can be taken now to get the process started. For example, youth summer employment programs (SYEPs) have been shown to reduce crime, whether by providing much-needed revenue or by providing structure and mentoring for youth during their time out of school. Generally funded by city governments in partnership with local businesses, SYEPs provide young people with paid jobs in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

Versions of these programs can be found in at least 27 of the 30 largest cities. However, SYEPs rarely serve all who might benefit from them. The programs have also struggled during the pandemic. In Boston, for example, a limited number of available positions were offered through a lottery; only 28 percent of the more than 4,200 young people looking for a job did so.

Increasing funding for these and similar programs should be part of every elected officer’s agenda. Some cities have already taken steps to empower local SYEPs. New York City announced earlier this year that it would expand the city’s program from 75,000 to 90,000 participants. SYEPs can provide jobs, structure and financial support to young people in difficult times while building safer communities.

Finally, research also shows that affordable health care reduces the likelihood of people entering the criminal justice system. It also reduces relapses. Recent studies have found that access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems appears to reduce rates of violent and property crime. Of course, treatment services – and mental health care in particular – must also be affordable to be effective. Cost barriers may be part of the reason for the persistent gap between mental health needs and care. The problem is particularly acute for people returning to their communities from incarceration, as they are likely to leave prison with at least one chronic health condition. These injustices need to be addressed, at least through programs and policies that connect those leaving prison to health care services.

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