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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.