Skip Navigation

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.

Last Updated: May 9, 2023
Published: July 12, 2022
View the entire Explainers collection

Click here for the latest FBI crime statistics >>

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 after 2019. 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 or reforms. Last, 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, such as 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 2020–2022

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. Data from the FBI and other sources suggests that those trends slowed in 2021. And although national data is not yet available for 2022, the information we do have indicates that murders declined.

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 connected to a broader surge in gun violence. More than 75 percent of murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm, reaching a new high. Cities that report data on shooting incidents, such as New York, saw significant increases in this form of violence as well.

Murders rose in cities nationwide and in 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 central flaw in arguments that seek 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 Brooklyn communities have been hot spots of violence for more than a quarter century. These increases continue a deeper and much more troubling trend that predates 2020 — what sociologist Patrick Sharkey calls “the rigid geography of violence,” in which crime remains relatively concentrated even as absolute levels decline.

Violence also remained concentrated among young people. Around 40 percent of people arrested for murder in 2020 were aged between 20 and 29, matching historical trends. Murder victims were more widely distributed 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.” Finally, violence may also have become concentrated in another way. One study indicates that with violence rising and fewer people outside during the height of the pandemic in 2020, 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 the table 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: Dealing with Uncertainty in National Data

In early October 2022, the FBI released its long-awaited compilation of 2021 crime data. But this data differed sharply in content and quality from previous years due to a transition in the way the government collects crime data. Specifically, 2021 was the first year to rely exclusively on a recently updated system for tracking crime data, the National Incident-Based Reporting System. Many agencies were not able to transition to the new format in time. As a result, the bureau received full-year reports from agencies covering just half of the country’s population. By comparison, earlier reports included a full year of data from agencies covering roughly 95 percent of the population.

To fill these gaps, the FBI’s report on national crime trends relied heavily on estimates. The agency estimated crime trends for 2021 based on the data it had available. Then it went back to 2020 and applied that same estimating methodology as if that year’s data had been similarly incomplete. In doing so, the bureau aimed to create an appropriate “apples to apples” comparison, despite the differences in data quality. The FBI also used upper- and lower-bound estimates given the uncertainty about the agency’s conclusions, estimates we represent as a rough margin of error.

Ultimately, the FBI’s best estimates suggest that murders rose by roughly 4 percent in 2021, while all violent crime declined very slightly. Independent research partially corroborates those findings. For example, one report, published by the Council on Criminal Justice and focusing on major-city police departments, also showed that murder rates in a select group of cities with available data continued to increase in 2021, although at a much slower rate than in the previous year. But the same report suggests violent crime also rose slightly, contrary to the FBI’s findings.

Unfortunately, this uncertainty is likely to persist. Reliable government data on crime trends in 2021 may never be available for some states and even many large cities. Data quality will likely improve for 2022, but it’s too soon to know for sure.

Crime in 2022: Early Indicators

FBI data covering all of 2022 is not yet available, so it is too soon to speak with confidence about national crime trends for that year. But research by Jeff Asher, an analyst who studies crime trends, and another report by the Council on Criminal Justice, point to two positive developments: murders and gun violence appear to have dropped in many cities. Even though the analyses are derived from data covering a limited number of cities, any decline in gun violence is welcome news after two years of increases.

However, the Council on Criminal Justice report notes that in many cities, robberies increased in 2022, alongside a dramatic rise in motor vehicle thefts. A similar trend unfolded in New York City, where a roughly 10 percent decline in murder accompanied a rise in other offenses, including robberies and burglaries.

Researchers should closely track this apparent divergence. One possible explanation is that the rise in crimes like robbery — which are more likely than murders to be committed by a stranger — may have coincided with a return to pre-pandemic conditions as more people left their homes more often. The data does indeed show an uptick in foot traffic and commerce relative to 2021. Daily ridership on New York City’s subways, for example, did not consistently exceed 60 percent of pre-pandemic trends until spring 2022. But it remains to be seen whether this is mere correlation or a reflection of something deeper.

Placing Current Trends into Historical Context  

These increases in crime rates are serious on their own terms and should not be trivialized. Nationally, however, they do not return us to the high crime rates of the early 1990s. From 1991 to 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 Recent Crime Trends

It’s tempting to jump to conclusions or look for a simple diagnosis that explains the increased crime rates in 2020 and 2021. 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 Bail Reform

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, rising crime. But a growing body of research calls these claims into question.

Broadly, there is no evidence that bail reform drove post-2020 rises in violence. Instead, research comparing public safety trends from before and after bail reforms tends to show no link between these policy changes and increasing crime. According to one recent study, for example, there is “no clear or obvious pattern” in violent crime trends in jurisdictions that have adopted pretrial reforms. Surveying the best available evidence from four jurisdictions — Harris County, Texas; Cook County, Illinois; Philadelphia; and New Jersey — the authors found no indication that rearrest rates rose after reforms went into effect, or at most, any increases were relatively minor (“0.4 to 3.2 percent of all cases charged,” with the vast majority nonviolent). That is not what we would expect to see if bail reform were somehow driving spikes in crime.

The same pattern has unfolded in New York. After passing major bail reform legislation in 2019, the legislature revised it just a few months after it went into effect, then again in 2022 and 2023, each time citing concerns about public safety. The first two revisions expanded the types of cases in which judges are legally permitted to set bail or order detention; the third addressed judicial discretion. But a March 2023 analysis by the Data Collaborative for Justice — the first study to use statistical techniques to compare similar cases from before and after reform — paints a more complicated picture of bail reform’s impact on crime trends. Notably, the study found that “eliminating bail for select misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges under New York’s original bail reform law significantly reduced recidivism” in New York City.

Focusing on different “subsets” of cases adds important nuance, though. Recidivism did increase after bail reform, the researchers found, in some cases — those where the defendant had a recent violent arrest or open case. (Another study had previously reached a similar conclusion.) And the legislature’s 2020 amendment may indeed have reduced recidivism. These are important distinctions for policymakers to be aware of. But reviewed holistically, these findings suggest that bail reform did not significantly contribute to rising crime in New York City.

The Role of Progressive Prosecutors

Some critics have asserted that policies adopted by progressive prosecutors and “blue-state” mayors — such as declining to prosecute certain nonviolent offenses or declining to seek pretrial detention 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 statistically significant change in serious crime rates relative to other jurisdictions. A subsequent analysis by another team of researchers also found no relationship between progressive prosecutors and rates of robbery, larceny, or homicide.

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, such as disorderly conduct and minor drug possession. Similarly, reducing the use of cash bail may cut down on some of the harmful consequences of pretrial detention, which range from higher rates of rearrest to job loss stemming from time out of the community.

Some critics have attempted to assert a different theory: that liberal, reformist, or “progressive” urban governance may itself be to blame for rising crime. But the 2020 rise in murder rates did not vary significantly based on a city’s voting patterns. A review by Asher 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 previous police pullbacks to rising crime have not withstood close scrutinyLeading 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 and encourage 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 deter and solve 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

Gun violence contributed significantly to the post-2020 increase in violence, a trend that has become clear in city and national data. Cities that track shooting incidents, such as New York City, tended to see sharp increases in 2020. Gun assaults also rose in major cities through 2021. And according to FBI data, approximately 77 percent of murders nationwide in 2020 were committed with a firearm — the highest share reported in FBI data going back to 1960.

Legally purchased guns also turned up at crime scenes more quickly in 2020 and 2021. Law enforcement professionals track the flow of guns using a metric called “time-to-crime” — essentially, the time between a gun’s lawful purchase and its recovery from a crime scene. According to a report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the percentage of guns recovered with a time-to-crime of under three years rose dramatically in 2020 and 2021. One-third of gun recoveries in 2021 involved a weapon bought within the previous year, and half involved one purchased in the past three years.

The pandemic may have encouraged more people to purchase and rely on weapons. Indeed, one study documented “4.3 million excess firearm purchases nationally from March through July 2020” relative to what the researchers’ model would have predicted based on past data. Some experts caution against drawing a straight line between legal gun buying and firearm deaths. But research conducted by the University of Chicago Crime Lab drew on data from police stops to show that firearm carrying in Chicago doubled from 2019 to 2020.

Notably, public health research also shows a similar increase in firearm deaths after including deaths by suicide. According to one study, “all-intent annual firearm fatality rates” reached “a 28-year high in 2021 of 14.7 fatalities per 100,000 persons.” Gun deaths among children have also risen dramatically, surpassing motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 18. This data offers a complementary, more holistic, and disturbing account of rising national gun violence.

More research is needed to fully understand the role of firearms in violent crime trends. In a January 2022 article, crime analyst Jeff Asher and freelance author and data scientist Rob Arthur argue that finer-grain data from ATF 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 in 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 in 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 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 deliver 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, even in good 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 antiviolence 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 combating 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, worsening 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.” This persistent reality underscores 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 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

The United States’ uniquely destructive relationship with guns accelerates violence of all types, from gang killings to school shootings and racial terrorism against Black and Asian people, as painfully illustrated by recent events. 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.

Evidence for a connection between weakened gun control laws and violence continues to mount. In a recent review of “hundreds of scientific studies,” the RAND Corporation summarized the state of research on gun violence prevention. On concealed carry, they found “supportive evidence” that “shall-issue” laws — which require licensing authorities to grant a concealed carry permit if the applicant satisfies basic criteria — increase the incidence of firearm homicides and homicides overall. But in a June 2022 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 the new obstacles presented by 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 are being scaled up across the country, thanks in part to recently available federal funding. But they need sustained support from partners in government — and accessible grant streams — to reach their full potential.

CVIs can take many forms. They 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 Chicago neighborhoods impacted by violence 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 and professional support for staff. 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. Indeed, funding options for CVIs expanded even further in 2022 — though administrative burdens may preclude some organizations from accessing it. Policymakers should aim to provide stable rather than one-off funding so organizations can plan their budgets around it, and make grants more accessible to the small neighborhood-based organizations that need them most. 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 levels, 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 in difficult times while building safer communities.

Lastly, research also shows that affordable health care, particularly mental 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.


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.


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. Finally, the authors would like to thank Thomas Abt, Jeff Asher, Aubrey Fox, Adam Gelb, Dr. Josephine Hahn, Anna Harvey, Olive Lu, Peter Miller, John Pfaff, Michael Rempel, Richard Rosenfeld, Eric Ruben, Jules Verdone, Alex Vitale, and several other experts who spoke with the authors on background for sharing their expertise.