What new crime stats tell us about our approach to justice?
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Today’s release of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2015 crime statistics confirm what has been reported in a number of cities around the country: while crime overall is still at a twenty-year low, America concluded 2015 with a significant increase in homicides. While any act of violence is a matter of concern, a deeper dive into the data shows that we must rethink our approach to violence and how we are enhancing community safety, particularly in the places most impacted by crime.

A select group of cities disproportionately contributed to the uptick in homicides. A New York Times analysis showed that fully half of the increase in homicides in 2015 came from just seven cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Washington D.C. Looking at the 2016 homicide trends in the 30 largest US cities , the Brennan Center for Justice showed that half of the increase in homicides among these places was in Chicago alone, a city where violence prevention approaches have been hard hit by the state budget shortfall.

Yet what’s being documented in Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and other cities most impacted by the increase in violence tells us what we already know: crime most heavily affects parts of our country that already face other challenges. This is evident right here in my community of the Washington, D.C. metro area.

Data we analyzed on the 2015 homicide increase from the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments shows that about 80 percent of the growth in homicides in this region occurred in Prince George’s County, Maryland and the District of Columbia—places that have, on average, higher rates of poverty and lower incomes than neighboring communities. Nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, which is larger and more affluent, accounted for less than 10 percent of the increase in lethal violence in our region. In the District, seventy-one percent of the growth in homicides last year occurred in just three Wards – all places where residents face higher unemployment, lower incomes, and bigger challenges with drug addiction and school success than the city average. Combine these factors with easy access to lethal firearms, and what is produced is the perfect recipe for violent crime.

Accordingly, certain groups of people in places wracked by violence are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than others. Despite what we may think based on local news coverage, violent crime victims are more likely to be young, low income, people of color. Research by the Vera Institute of Justice also shows that the people most at risk of being a violent crime victim are also are more likely to end up in prison and encounter the police.

All this data underlines our principal challenge in responding to violence: more prison and more police are not going to make us safer. Instead, we need to increase our investments in neighborhoods and the people most likely to experience violent crime. Looking at the American cities most affected by violent crime in 2015, it’s clear that policymakers did not respond to the uptick in crime by investing in preventative measures.

In the cities hardest hit by the homicide increase, like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, small steps to advance approaches that focus on reducing harm and escalation of violence have been impacted by budget cuts, and did not receive the  amount of funding that would have ensured their efficacy.

Maryland and Virginia have both identified gaps in how they provide mental health and drug treatment for people leaving prisons and jails, meaning they may not get the treatment they need to avoid re-offending.

Thankfully, there are bright spots. Oakland, California may provide a guide for policymakers on what the right investment in violence prevention looks like.

Oakland benefited from a sustained, multi-year investment by city, county and state leaders in a comprehensive public health approach to violence prevention, and experienced fewer homicides and other violent crimes in 2016. Taxpayers in Oakland are spending a fraction of what will be saved in the long-term by preventing crimes, rather than responding to them.

The good news from Oakland points to what federal, state and local policymakers should be doing around the country: doubling down on investments in strategies that reduce the harm of violence, in turn bringing relief to places most impacted by crime. Furthermore, the most effective investments can and ought to be made largely outside the justice system. 

Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. Follow him on Twitter @marc4justice. 


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