The first quarter of every new year brings the release of studies analyzing crime statistics from the previous 365 days. News agencies report the results of the studies and conclusions to be drawn about the causes of violent crime in America and potential solutions.
For example, a study by the Council on Criminal Justice reported a 5% increase in homicides in2021 compared to 2020 and a 44% uptick over 2019. The cities that were the study subjects had 218 more murders in 2021 than in the prior year, and gun-related assaults increased by 8%. Researchers found that more than 75% of the murders committed in the cities they studied involved the use of a firearm.
Researchers were quoted as offering social unrest, availability of firearms, and pandemic pressures as a few causes for the increase in gun-related violence. The data would appear to support them. If you are looking for a solution to violent crime, which has been around for as long as civilization itself, you need to look beyond today's headlines.
Interpreting criminal statistics
A 44% increase in homicides or an additional 218 murders from a prior year requires a big-picture approach when interpreting precisely what it says about violent crimes in America. The truth is that violent crimes represent only a fraction of the crimes committed. To illustrate this, Pew Research Center looked at FBI crime reports tabulated from police agencies throughout the country that showed violent crimes occurring at the rate of 379.4per 100,000 people. In contrast, crimes against property happened at a rate that was six times greater.
Non-violent crimes may occur more frequently, but homicide rates and assaults involving firearms instill a greater sense of fear and generate more headlines. One response has relied on long prison sentences as punishment for those convicted of committing violent offenses, particularly those involving firearms.
What effect does imprisonment have on crime rates?
The response of many state governments to violent crimes has been to change laws to increase the severity of the punishment imposed on offenders. The rationale being that harsh punishment of offenders sends a message that deters others from engaging in the same or similar activities.
Examples of these laws can be found in California, where violent offenders face long, mandatory prison sentences, or in Oklahoma, where a person convicted of committing a violent crime cannot participate in diversion programs, such as drug court. Oklahoma also requires approval from the governor before a person convicted of a violent crime may be paroled from prison.
The Brennan Center for Justice called into question the effectiveness of imposing harsh punishment to deter violent crime that many government officials continue to advocate. It points out that the dramatic drop in violent crimes in the 1990s,which many people attribute to an increase in the rate of incarceration during the decade, ignores an important fact about the two decades immediately prior.
The reliance of judges in the 1970s and '80s on imprisonment for violent offenders had little effect on crime rates. It also had little to do with a sharp drop in violent crime occurring just north of the border in Canada, where judges did not hand out lengthy prison terms to offenders.
Options instead of incarceration
Some communities have addressed violent crimes by implementing programs that work on a small scale by identifying those individuals at risk of becoming potential offenders as well as those at risk of becoming victims of violence. Counseling and other methods are used to alter behaviors associated with violent offenders and their victims.
Programs in communities within Boston, Oakland, and Chicago have met with success. The Boston program actually cut in half the rate of homicides among young people in the city.
Finding a solution to murders and other violent crimes has not proven to be easy and requires a long-term commitment. Imprisonment as the go-to response to violent crimes has not worked to resolve the problem, so it may be time to try something else.