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Analysis

2020 Uptick in Homicides Doesn’t Mean Criminal Justice Reforms Aren’t Working

Don’t let reform opponents create tie between crime increase and needed justice policies.

Last Updated: October 7, 2021
Published: October 7, 2021
Police officer stands behind yellow tape
Spencer Platt/Getty

This article was originally published by USA Today.

Several states have modernized their pretrial systems, curtailing the use of cash bail, a practice that disproportionately punishes low-income individuals and people of color. Reform skeptics warned that such changes would cause upticks in crime. Critically, those opponents were wrong.

Unfortunately, the newly released annual FBI crime statistics report, showing a sharp increase in homicides last year across the country, may encourage those who oppose commonsense criminal legal reforms to repeat that mistake. To prevent a similar rush to bad policymaking, it’s critical to think through the data.

The new report shows a complex reality, reflecting the unprecedented and volatile nature of 2020 – a year in which the nation experienced stressful lockdowns, economic insecurity, deep social unrest and tensions between communities and law enforcement.

Nationally, some major crime rates (including for property crimes) declined, continuing an 18-year streak of declines across the country. But the most concerning takeaway is that homicides increased by almost 30% in 2020 (preliminary data shows that the spike in homicides already has slowed this year, suggesting 2020’s spike might not be the new normal).

This remains a serious challenge to which policymakers must respond. But they must respond sensibly – without turning their backs on policies that have made our nation safer and fairer – especially when those policies have not had a chance to demonstrate their effectiveness.

In the last decade, a growing number of both red and blue states passed a variety of bipartisan criminal legal reforms – such as significant changes to probationparole and sentencing – and other efforts to help reduce mass incarceration and curb wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars. Then, during the pandemic, many federal, state and local officials took steps, however partial or short-lived, to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails to prevent unnecessary COVID-19 fatalities.

Did these reforms cause the spike in violent crimes? While that may seem like an easy conclusion, it is highly unlikely.

First, it’s important to recognize that the rise in homicide rates in 2020 was a national phenomenon, not specific to states or cities that adopted significant criminal legal reforms. 

Second, what the new data really reveals is that a complex blend of factors likely led to the increase, among them significant social and economic disruptions driven by the pandemic.

Last year’s rise in homicides – many of which involved firearms – also coincided with a dramatic increase in both gun usage and sales, a direct byproduct of the widespread social unrest experienced across the country. Indeed, between March and June 2020, 3 million more firearms were sold on average compared with past years. 

More than three-quarters of the way through 2021, the picture is becoming even more complex. Preliminary data on this year’s crime trends suggests changes that can’t be easily squared with any narrative. In some cities, the numbers haven't significantly changed. In others, homicide numbers saw huge increases last year but are already dropping significantly this year. Ultimately, the drivers behind last year’s homicide increase may permanently defy simple explanation.

The new data calls for thoughtful examination and tangible, evidence-based solutions. But even before all the data is collected and fully examined, certain things are clear from what has been released already: It would be wrong and harmful to the country to blame the spike in homicides on commonsense criminal justice reforms.

After all, these reforms were largely informed by data – data that demonstrated that these types of reforms make communities safer. Rolling them back under false pretenses is the height of bad-faith governance and could lead to increases in unnecessary incarceration, economic hardship and ultimately undermine the communities we seek to keep safe.

Arguments that blame smart criminal justice reforms for these unusual trends are fearmongering, plain and simple. And fearmongering isn’t smart policy. Going back to ballooning prison and jail populations isn’t a solution. Doubling down on a failed system that uses incarceration as a first resort when other interventions will be more effective and less costly is simply wrong. To build a just system with enduring public safety requires following the road to reforms, not retreating to old paths.

When it comes to creating effective public safety strategies, using accurate and accessible data is a necessity. But it’s equally important to walk away with well-reasoned and productive conclusions.

Alexander Horwitz is the executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice. Ames Grawert is senior counsel and the John L. Neu Justice Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.