Within hours of coming into office, the Trump Administration changed content on The White House website, including pages related to critical public safety issues. Specifically, a new webpage on criminal justice issues entitled “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community”, contained language that is largely untrue and harkens back to the kind of language that fueled the failed “law and order” policies of the ‘90s.
One of the most glaring falsehoods on the webpage states, “in our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent.”
The crime statistics the President cited were over a year old, and lacked context that should be considered to inform sound policy decisions. While it is true that the nation’s capital faced an increase in homicides in 2015, the latest data from the Metropolitan Police Department showed that homicides declined by 18 percent in 2016. PolitiFact rated the President’s statement on D.C.’s crime trends “Mostly False.”
The President’s statement on crime trends in Washington, D.C., and other depictions of “thousands of shootings in Chicago” creates unsubstantiated fear of violence among all Americans, and makes it harder to focus policymakers on sound ways to enhance public safety.
With Trump’s emotionally charged emphasis on “crime and violence”, claims like these make it difficult to have a conversation on justice reform that is grounded in facts and context.
In fact, the data actually shows that a small number of neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by violence. In 2016, half the homicides in Chicago happened in about seven of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods.
In Washington, DC, just three wards were the places where about seven out of 10 homicides occurred in the city. The reality is that violent crime impacts some neighborhoods and some people more than others. And victims of violent crime are more likely to be young, low income, and people of color, despite the fact that the mainstream media often highlight cases where the victims are white.
While he recently tweeted that “I will send in the Feds!” if Chicago’s crime challenges continued, leaders in Chicago and the Capital have a very different vision than this administration on how to effectively enhance public safety.
While the President has called for more police and more efforts to protect gun owner’s rights, Chicago community leaders assert that a more effective way to curb violent crime would be to use strategies that reduce reliance on the criminal justice system and invest more on violence prevention in neighborhoods experiencing the most lethal violence.
In Building a Safe Chicago, 46 organizations that represent crime victims, health professionals, the faith community and civil rights groups noted that, “we cannot arrest, prosecute, or imprison our way out of the [violence] problem.” Instead, Building a Safe Chicago calls for investing much more in crime prevention by reducing prison sentences, and shifting billions of dollars away from prisons and jails towards job creation, afterschool programs, affordable housing, and invest more in drug and mental treatment. Since the years leading up to Chicago’s homicide spike already saw penalties for unlawful gun possession increased six times – something that lead to a tripling the number of people in Illinois prisons for weapons offenses – Building a Safe Chicago calls for a new approach to curbing gun crimes that focuses on reducing handgun availability.
Building a Safe Chicago calls for more equity, accountability and effectiveness to reduce police response times, curb police brutality and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, not for more police per se.
A recent survey of Illinois crime victims echoes Chicago leaders’ calls for an approach to curbing violent crime that is less reliant on the justice system, and more focused on prevention.
In Illinois Crime Victims' Voices, the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that, nine in 10 victims surveyed said they prefer that policymakers invest more in schools and education rather than investing in more prisons and jails, and seven in 10 victims surveyed prefer shorter prison sentences and spending more on prevention and rehabilitation programs to long prison sentences.
Along with having their crime trends highlighted by President Trump, Chicago and Washington, D.C. share the distinction of having local leaders who have been studying the facts, and are calling for more resources to be devoted to support violence prevention, strategies to reduce harm when violence occurs, and de-escalate violence when it erupts.
If President Trump truly believes “every American is to live in a safe community,” he should look to local leaders and the real facts. Rather than exaggerating crime trends, creating fear, keeping guns on streets, putting more people in prison or sending in “the Feds,” President Trump should help local leaders fund the violence prevention approaches at the scale they are needed, so that all of us are more likely to live in safe and healthy communities.
Marc Schindler and Jason Ziedenberg are, respectively, the executive director and the research and policy director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies. Follow Justice Policy Institute on Twitter @JusticePolicy
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.