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Myths and Realities: Understanding Recent Trends in Violent Crime

The recent rise in crime is extraordinarily complex. Policymakers and the public should not jump to conclusions or expect easy answers.

Published: July 12, 2022

After years of decline, crime rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly violent crime. Using available but incomplete data, this analysis seeks to set out a clear and accurate summary of what is known so far about recent trends in crime and violence.

While researchers have begun to identify some of the factors that may have contributed to this upward trend, it is far too soon to say with certainty why crime rose over the last two years. This uncertainty itself should guide our understanding of crime trends today. It underscores the danger of jumping to conclusions — such as blaming specific, often newly implemented, policies. Lastly, the analysis points to promising new solutions that may address some of the factors behind recent crime trends.

At the outset, it’s important to note that this analysis focuses on the most serious offenses known to law enforcement. Other visible social problems like homelessness, and less serious offenses such as shoplifting, also affect perceptions of public safety and may be the subject of future analyses.

What Happened in 2020–2021

Amid a series of interlocking crises, violent crime and some types of property crime rose across the country in 2020 in communities of all types. It is too soon to talk with precision about national crime trends in 2021, as the FBI has yet to publish national data. However, preliminary information suggests that increases in murder rates may have begun to slow.

Crime in 2020

Crime rates changed dramatically across the United States in 2020. Most significantly, the murder rate — that is, the number of murders per 100,000 people — rose sharply, by nearly 30 percent. Assaults increased as well, with the rate of offenses rising by more than 10 percent. Both increases are part of a broader surge in gun violence. More than 75 percent of murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm, reaching a new high point, and cities that report data on shooting incidents, like New York, saw significant increases in this form of violence as well.

Murders rose in cities nationwide and jurisdictions of all types. Relative to 2019, the number of murders jumped by more than 30 percent in the largest cities and by 20 percent in places designated by the FBI as “suburban” — cities with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants that are within a Metropolitan Statistical Area. Murders rose by comparable levels in rural areas too — an important fact that is only now beginning to receive press attention.

Despite politicized claims that this rise was the result of criminal justice reform in liberal-leaning jurisdictions, murders rose roughly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats. So-called “red” states actually saw some of the highest murder rates of all. This data makes it difficult to pin recent trends on local policy shifts and reveals the basic inaccuracy of attempts to politicize a problem as complex as crime. Instead, the evidence points to broad national causes driving rising crime.

We can draw a few additional conclusions about trends in violent crime in 2020. For one, poor and historically disadvantaged communities bore the brunt of the rise in violence in 2020. In just one example, according to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the number of shootings doubled in the neighborhood of East New York (from 51 to 102) and nearly tripled in Brownsville (from 34 to 96). Both communities have been hot spots of violence for more than a quarter century.

Violence also remained concentrated among younger people. Around 40 percent of people arrested for murder in 2020 were between the ages of 20 and 29, matching historical trends. Murder victims were more varied in terms of age, with around 30 percent in their 20s and another 30 percent over the age of 40. Unfortunately, FBI data is too spotty to allow us to draw conclusions about the circumstances leading up to a murder. In nearly half of all cases — a marked increase over recent years, according to the Council on Criminal Justice — the circumstances surrounding a killing were “undetermined.” Lastly, violence may also have become concentrated in another way. One study indicates that with violence rising and fewer people outside during the pandemic, the risk of experiencing a violent crime on the street (measured in crimes per hour spent in public) climbed dramatically, even while the actual number of crimes committed dropped — potentially contributing to a perception of lawlessness not apparent from the raw numbers.

Importantly, though, not all types of crime rose in 2020. In fact, trends in violent and property crime diverged sharply from each other (as illustrated in Table 1 above), with the national rate of property crimes reaching a record low in 2020. While this is uncommon, it is not unprecedented; a similar dynamic unfolded between 2015 and 2016, though on a much less dramatic scale. There are many possible explanations for why property and violent crime trends decoupled in 2020. Lockdown orders, for example, may have significantly reduced opportunities for larceny or made people less likely to report crimes to police (though a government survey focusing on reports of criminal victimization suggests the latter explanation is unlikely).

The increase in motor vehicle thefts is also notable, and not just because it is the only property offense that rose in 2020. For one, motor vehicle theft tends to have a relatively high rate of reporting compared to other property offenses, suggesting that it may be a more accurate barometer of property offenses than, for example, larceny. Additionally, motor vehicle theft has also been linked to more serious crimes, like murder, making its increase a cause for concern.

Crime in 2021

More than six months into 2022, national-level data on crime in 2021 remains unavailable. This is due in part to a transition in the way the government collects crime data. Indeed, because of this transition, reliable government data on crime trends in 2021 may never be available for some states and even many large cities.

Some organizations have stepped up to fill the gap. One report, published by the Council on Criminal Justice and focusing on major-city police departments, paints a mixed picture. On the one hand, it appears that murder rates in major cities continued to increase, but at a much slower rate than the 2019–2020 increase. The trend is especially pronounced in the five largest American cities. 

But the council’s report found significant variation in other offenses. For example, drug and most property offenses fell in their limited sample of cities. But gun assaults rose by 8 percent, and motor vehicle thefts continued their precipitous rise. Taken together, this information suggests that the divergence between property and violent crimes observed in 2020 — with violence rising even as other types of crime stabilized or declined — continued into 2021. It is difficult to know for sure whether and how significantly these trends have continued to diverge without the benefit of national FBI data.

Placing Current Trends into Historical Context  

These increases in crime rates are serious on their own terms and should not be trivialized. Nationally, though, they do not return us to the high crime rates of the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 2014, the national murder rate plummeted by more than 50 percent, from 9.8 to 4.4 killings per 100,000 people. By comparison, the murder rate for 2020 stood at around 6.5 — a rate last seen in the late 1990s but still well below the high point of the last quarter century. The rate of violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2020 has been relatively flat, comparable to the rate last seen a decade prior in 2010.

This historical context and the steep increase in murders relative to other violent crimes are both important for understanding the problems posed by recent trends in violence as well as for evaluating potential solutions. But even with violence well below historic highs, members of the public are right to be concerned, and it is incumbent upon policymakers to develop smart, innovative answers to these new public safety challenges.

Myths About Crime in 2020

It’s tempting to jump to conclusions about rising crime or to look for a simple diagnosis that explains the violence of the last two years. Policymakers should avoid both temptations. In fact, new evidence allows us to reject some popular myths and misconceptions about rising crime and begin to identify effective measures to improve public safety without repeating old mistakes.

The Impact of Criminal Justice Reform

Broadly, it does not appear that policies associated with criminal justice reform were a significant contributor to recent trends in crime and violence.

Some policymakers and police leaders have been quick to blame rising crime on reforms to pretrial detention laws and practices, arguing that people released from jail under these initiatives were responsible for, or at least contributed to, the increase in violent crime. These arguments gained traction across the country over the last two years, but no evidence has emerged to support them. 

In New York State, for example, police leaders argued early in 2020 that the state’s bail reform law — which aimed to reduce unnecessary pretrial incarceration and ensure that more people could await trial in their communities — caused an increase in shootings in New York City by forcing judges to release people who posed a danger to the community. This claim did not hold up to initial scrutiny, however. Today, the best available information, including data released by the state and a local nonprofit agency, suggests that bail reform did not drive increases in crime. Ultimately, the state’s bail laws were further revised in April 2022 to (among other things) limit pretrial release for certain people with previous arrests and allow judges to consider a broader range of factors when setting release conditions in some cases. But the impact of these new changes on public safety and pretrial incarceration remains unclear

Concerns about the effects of pretrial release on crime have not been limited to New York. In Houston, a federal lawsuit largely ended misdemeanor cash bail in 2017 in Harris County, Texas. The county’s district attorney, Kim Ogg, whose jurisdiction includes Houston and its immediate suburbs, blamed these changes for rising crime in the city and released a report purporting to show as much. But that report contrasts sharply with findings by an independent monitor.

More broadly, some critics have asserted that policies adopted by progressive prosecutors and “blue-state” mayors — such as declining to prosecute certain nonviolent offenses or to seek bail in some cases — contributed to rising crime. But there is no evidence to support these claims. In fact, researchers have shown that the election of progressive prosecutors has not caused crime to increase in their cities. In one working paper, a team of social scientists analyzed crime data from 35 cities where more progressive law enforcement officials entered office, finding no change in serious crime rates relative to other jurisdictions. In some cases, so-called “progressive” policies may in fact enhance public safety. According to one recent study of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, “people who are not prosecuted for misdemeanors are much less likely to find themselves in a courtroom again within two years.” That speaks well of a policy implemented by former Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, under which her office declined to prosecute many (but not all) nonviolent misdemeanors, like disorderly conduct and minor drug possession.

Some critics have attempted to assert a related theory: that liberal, reformist, or “progressive” urban governance may itself be to blame. But the 2020 rise in murder rates did not vary based on a city’s political inclination. A review by Jeff Asher, an analyst who studies crime trends, indicated that murders increased in 2020 by approximately 29 percent in cities with a Democratic mayor and 26 percent in cities led by a Republican. Another recent policy brief by Third Way, a center-left think tank, points to relatively high rates of violence in “red” states — underscoring the truly national nature of the 2020 crime increase and the lack of a clear relationship with specific policies.

Changes in Policing Practices

Researchers have long studied whether a sudden decrease in police activity can lead to a spike in crime or violence, especially if the pullback is triggered by citizen protests. Some cities did indeed see a drop in arrests in 2020, particularly in the spring and early summer. But attempts to link police pullbacks to rising crime have not withstood close scrutiny in past years. Leading studies reject a direct link, with some suggesting only that, at most, changes in arrest patterns may be just one factor among many others affecting crime trends. Any attempt to link “de-policing” to crime in 2020 would also fail to explain the divergence between trends in violent crime (which rose) and property crime (which did not).

Researchers should continue to study this issue but may also consider other ways that policing interacts with crime trends. For one, murder clearance rates — that is, the proportion of offenses in which police make an arrest — dropped to historic lows in 2020, meaning many murders went unsolved. These failures may erode community trust in police, encouraging further violence. Additionally, some researchers have pointed to the corrosive effect of police violence on relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, a dynamic that may undermine the ability of police officers to solve and even deter crime. Taken together, these possibilities underscore the importance of rebuilding trust between police officers and communities and ensuring that law enforcement meets the needs of those whose lives and homes are threatened by violence.

Contributing Factors: What We Know So Far

Disproving popular myths about rising crime is one thing. Identifying the factors that have driven crime over the last few years is much more difficult. Crime is complicated, and attempting to isolate a single factor to explain crime trends, especially during a once-in-a-century global pandemic, would be a mistake. However, some information has emerged pointing to factors that may partially explain what happened in 2020 and 2021. Understanding these factors may also inform potential solutions.

The Role of Guns

Approximately 77 percent of murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm — the highest share ever reported in FBI data going back to 1960 — indicating that surging gun violence may have helped drive that year’s increase in violence. Several other pieces of evidence have emerged to strengthen this theory.

For one, gun sales hit a record high in 2020. One study documented “4.3 million excess firearm purchases nationally from March through July 2020.” People were also more likely to carry guns in 2020. Research conducted by the University of Chicago Crime Lab drew on data from police stops to find that firearm carrying in Chicago doubled from 2019 to 2020. What’s more, the time between a gun’s legal purchase and its appearance at a crime scene — a metric that law enforcement officials call a weapon’s “time-to-crime” — was much shorter in 2020 than in previous years. Between 2015 and 2019, 13 percent of firearms traced by law enforcement were used in a crime within six months of their purchase. This number increased to 23 percent in 2020. Indeed, in 2020, police recovered 87,000 guns nationwide with a time-to-crime of less than a year.

More research is needed to fully understand the role of firearms in 2020’s murder increase. In a January 2022 article, crime analyst Jeff Asher and freelance author and data scientist Rob Arthur argue that finer-grain data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives would help establish a direct link between declining time-to-crime and increasing murder rates. In the meantime, increases in weapon purchasing, carrying, and use are troubling trends for a country that is home to almost half of the world’s civilian-owned firearms.

Socioeconomic Instability and Disruptions to Community Life

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a severe recession, one categorically different from those of the past. While many white-collar workers were able to shift to remote work, people in the service industry, gig economy, and other sectors faced extended unemployment, making the Covid-19 recession “the most unequal in U.S. history.” Those challenges were likely compounded for people with a criminal record, who face a difficult labor market even at the best of times.

Additionally, people and communities faced challenges in meeting basic needs, especially during the first year of the pandemic. Many endured trauma caused by sickness and death. Families faced disintegration as parents or caregivers caught or succumbed to the disease. The response by policymakers was not immediately adequate, breeding legal cynicism — that is, a belief that the government is illegitimate or unable to provide for its citizens. Community leaders struggled to provide food and protective equipment to people who could afford neither.

These sudden and unprecedented hardships jeopardized the stability of families and communities alike. Combined with other disruptions caused by lockdowns and social distancing measures, they may have upset the informal social processes — such as connections to neighbors, family members, and employers — that some researchers believe help keep neighborhoods safe.

For example, the pandemic forced local nonprofits — which sociologist Patrick Sharkey argues play a key role in public safety — to limit their services or repurpose themselves entirely to meet new needs. Among those impacted were community violence intervention programs (CVIs), which identify people likely to become involved in violence and work with them to prevent conflicts before they start. CVIs face funding uncertainty in the best of times. During the pandemic, these challenges increased dramatically.

In March of 2020, for example, Philadelphia froze $1 million previously allotted for small grants to 52 anti-violence organizations. Even where programs did not lose funding, social distancing made their work harder, if not impossible. Many were forced to turn to virtual meetings, which experts who spoke with the authors said may not support the type of direct communication on which their strategies depend. Virtual meetings also require a stable internet connection, which not all participants may have. Moreover, nonprofit organizations across the country were often tasked with combatting the pandemic and expanded their duties to distributing food, protective equipment, and supplies.

Other community resources were affected too. Many neighborhoods lack adequate physical infrastructure such as sidewalks and green space, which are linked to public health and safety. The pandemic accentuated these disparities in access to public space by halting or delaying valuable infrastructure projects. Closures of community spaces, from schools and summer programs to public pools and libraries, also left young people with few options for safe places to spend time outside of home and work. Such “third places” are a cornerstone of community and group socialization and can help build a sense of communal safety. The sudden loss of these spaces could have left people of all ages with fewer places to go, potentially contributing to conflict in and out of the home.

Research shows the pandemic also exacerbated mental health problems among millions of Americans and worsened preexisting inequalities in the delivery of mental health services. Critically, mental illness itself does not predict crime or violence. But serious and untreated mental illness can combine with other risk factors and hardships to lead to violence. Relatedly, the trauma and isolation created by the pandemic appear to have contributed to an increase in antisocial behavior at all levels of society, from aggressive driving to heavy alcohol and drug use.

Precisely identifying the impact of pandemic-era socioeconomic instability on crime will be a difficult (if not impossible) task for future researchers. But the evidence has begun to line up. Qualitatively, accounts of life in places like Cleveland, Ohio, show how the pandemic frayed community ties. And quantitatively, research shows that areas characterized by other forms of disadvantage, such as racial and economic segregation, were the most impacted by rising crime in 2020. Gun violence also tends to be extremely concentrated in high-poverty areas, and that dynamic continued to unfold in 2020 in cities as far afield as Baltimore, Chicago, and Kansas City, Missouri.

These accounts are what we would expect if the pandemic jeopardized the stability of communities that were already struggling to meet important needs. Sadly, these trends mirror an older dynamic — “when violence rose in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s,” write Patrick Sharkey and Alisabeth Marsteller, “it was felt most acutely in areas marked by concentrated poverty and racial segregation” — and underscore the fragility of American life in far too many of our communities.

Building a New Vision of Public Safety

Leaders at all levels of government must avoid responding to the rise in crime with policies that have been tried in the past and failed, like expanding the use of pretrial detention or following unnecessarily punitive sentencing practices. There is scant evidence that these initiatives would succeed. And research has consistently shown that long prison sentences, for example, may be counterproductive and that the collateral consequences of incarceration can be disastrous.

That makes it especially important for policymakers to understand the availability of, and strong support for, alternative strategies for reducing 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 an exhaustive 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 accelerates violence of all types, from gang killings to — as painfully illustrated by recent events — school shootings and racial terrorism against Black and Asian people. A decades-long campaign of deregulation has made gun carrying far more common, while making it harder to study, much less interdict or deter, the flow of firearms.

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

Despite this ruling, policymakers must look for ways to both stem the illegal trade of guns and limit the legal transfer of guns to people who pose a danger to themselves and others. For example, some states have enacted laws limiting gun purchases to one per month. When implemented in Virginia, the policy appeared to reduce gun trafficking out of the state. States could also consider banning the sale of assault weapons to young people or enacting “red flag” laws, which provide a civil procedure for confiscating dangerous weapons from someone believed to pose a public safety threat.

Local efforts will make a difference, but identifying smart, scalable solutions may prove challenging. Some jurisdictions have pursued gun buyback programs. In New York, for example, prosecutors collaborate with police and local institutions, including churches, to trade prepaid gift cards for firearms, no questions asked. Yet these programs only serve as a brake on the millions of guns sold in the United States in any given year. Their effects on gun violence appear to be minimal (although they may promote other community goals). As a result, they are no 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 run by people with experience in those communities, and work directly with high-risk individuals to steer them away from violence. These programs have begun to attract attention from policymakers and need sustained support from partners in government to succeed.

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 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 neighborhoods impacted by violence in Chicago by identifying people at a high risk of violence and offering them paid employment opportunities, support services, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

A growing body of evidence supports this work. New York’s Cure Violence programs, for instance, have reduced gun violence injuries in two high-risk neighborhoods. And READI, which works with the people at greatest risk of becoming involved in violence, may have reduced shooting and homicide arrests — though researchers could not state that conclusion with the preferred degree of statistical confidence and, therefore, recommended caution when interpreting their findings. Follow-up studies may help identify ways to improve the program.

To be sure, CVIs can be difficult to implement and even harder to replicate. Leaders in the field emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A CVI that successfully reduces violence in one jurisdiction may fail in another for any number of reasons, including a simple mismatch between its programming and the community’s needs. Buy-in from local government and other criminal justice stakeholders is also vital, as is stable long-term funding. Aside from implementation challenges, this high variability makes CVIs vulnerable to criticism.

Such criticism should not deter innovation at a time when creative solutions are desperately needed. Thankfully, support for CVIs appears to be growing at all levels of government. Policymakers should aim to provide stable rather than one-off funding so organizations can plan their budgets around it. Local governments should also explore how they can be an effective partner to CVIs.

Reinvest in Communities and Social Services

Saving lives now must be the priority, but it would be a mistake for policymakers to overlook solutions that address the broader, ongoing social and economic needs of poor communities and communities of color — especially as these are the same communities that bore the brunt of recent increases in violence and have struggled with safety for years. Reinvestment efforts aimed at building healthy, resilient communities may not yield immediate results. But they are critical to building safety in the long term.

At the state and national policy level, social programs designed to cut poverty can be part of this solution, as they have been proven to reduce crime and incarceration. Studies show that Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which increased access to health insurance for lower-income people, reduced arrest rates, as well as recidivism among people who had been to prison multiple times. (By contrast, restricting benefits such as disability income appears to have increased crime and incarceration.) And pandemic-era social policies, like the Child Tax Credit expansion, have only served to underscore the harmful consequences of poverty and the ability of social spending to reduce it. Policymakers can build on this strong foundation of research — and may, in the process, help undo some of the socioeconomic damage done by mass incarceration.

Addressing the deep structural problems that make some communities more susceptible to violence is a generational project. No one solution will roll back decades of disinvestment. However, some initiatives may be undertaken now to start the process. For example, summer youth employment programs (SYEPs) have been shown to reduce crime, whether by providing much-needed income or creating structure and mentorship for youth during their time away from school. Generally funded by city governments in partnership with local businesses, SYEPs provide young people with paid jobs in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Versions of these programs can be found in at least 27 of the 30 largest cities. However, SYEPs rarely serve all those who could benefit from them. The programs have also faced difficulties during the pandemic. In Boston, for example, a limited number of available jobs were offered through a lottery; only 28 percent of the over 4,200 young people looking to secure a position did so.

Increased funding for these and similar programs should be a part of any elected official’s agenda. Some cities have already taken steps to shore up local SYEPs. New York City announced earlier this year that it was expanding the city’s program from 75,000 to 90,000 participants. SYEPs can provide young people jobs, structure, and financial support at a difficult time while building safer communities.

Lastly, research also shows that affordable health care reduces the likelihood that people will enter the criminal justice system. It also reduces recidivism. Recent studies have found that access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues appears to decrease the rates of both violent and property crimes. Of course, treatment services — and especially mental health care — 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 especially acute for people returning to their communities from incarceration, as they are likely to leave prison with at least one chronic health condition. These inequities must be addressed, at a minimum through programs and policies that link people leaving prison with health care benefits.

Conclusion

While we don’t yet have a complete understanding of recent crime trends, we can state two things with confidence. First, recent crime increases do not fit conveniently into any political narrative. Second, it is vital that we look for creative solutions to national problems. Rising crime presents a challenge to communities across the country of all sizes and types. Now more than ever, policymakers must resist the temptation to oversimplify the many factors that shape public safety and instead prioritize solutions that build an enduring and holistic form of public safety.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Ram Subramanian for their strategic guidance of the report as well as their careful revisions and insightful comments, Gabriella Sanchez for her editorial assistance, Maris Mapolski for her detailed review and suggestions, Michael Waldman and John Kowal for their support for this policy analysis and thoughtful feedback, Cameron Kimble and Antara Nader for their extensive research and analytical support, and Stephanie Wylie for her policy and drafting support. Lastly, the authors would like to thank Thomas Abt, Jeff Asher, Adam Gelb, Anna Harvey, John Pfaff, Richard Rosenfeld, Eric Ruben, Alex Vitale, and several other experts who spoke with the authors on background for sharing their expertise.