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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.