Author: Elizabeth Berger

A Promising Option for Increasing Homicide Clearance Rates

Clearance rates for criminal investigations, particularly for homicides, are a reflection of police performance and a prominent component of offense deterrence. When offenders are not apprehended, the potential deterrent effect of sanctions is diminished and police legitimacy undermined. Clearance rates for serious crimes in the United States have remained essentially unchanged over the last four decades despite decreases in the index crime rate (and more recently, increases in the homicide rate specifically). Moreover, this is surprising considering how technology has advanced during this time. Data from the Uniform Crime Report shows that the nationwide homicide clearance rate decreased from approximately 83% in 1965 to 61% in 2007. It has stabilized in the last decade, with most recent estimates showing 62% in 2018. Hypothesized reasons for declines in clearance rates include an increase in the proportion of homicides involving strangers (e.g. gang- and drug-related violence as opposed to intimate relationship violence), declining societal support for police efforts, and increased regulation of police practices.

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Crime in the Era of COVID-19

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic had an enormous impact on nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives, ranging from economic distress, to disrupted schooling, and public health impacts. Relatedly, the pandemic has impacted crime in different ways, but there is still a lot of confusion and disagreement regarding this relationship. On its face, the onset of the pandemic was initially correlated with large drops in many types of crime. However, this finding comes with a caveat: while overall crime rates are lower than they have been in previous years, homicides and shootings are higher than normal, and this trend appears to be continuing into 2021. Continue reading . . .

San Francisco Risk Assessment Accurately Predicts Public Safety Risk for Pretrial Release Decisions

A recently published San Francisco-based study conducted by the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley/Los Angeles has shed some insight on the accuracy of the city’s Public Safety Assessment (PSA), an algorithmic tool that is used to inform pretrial release decisions for adult offenders. The tool scores defendants on how likely they are to show up for future court dates, their probability of committing a crime during the pretrial phase, and whether that crime might be violent. Overall, the researchers concluded that the tool met the threshold required for it to be considered “sufficiently predictive” (p. 27) of risk. The study examined 9,800 individuals released pending trial between May 2016 (when the tool was adopted) and December 2019. Of those people released, 51% failed to appear in court and 55% were arrested for new crimes during the pretrial release period (18% of which were for violent offenses).

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Advancing Police Use of Force Research

In the past few years, the use of force by police officers has been getting increasingly more attention in the United States and elsewhere, with many advocates pushing for widespread reform in this regard. Unfortunately though, research on police use of force still fails to provide answers to many important questions. A recently published article in the British Psychological Society’s Urgent Issues and Prospects series summarizes the most urgent issues in police use of force based on knowledge from police scholars and practitioners. The article outlines key considerations for advancing police use of force research, many of which center around police de-escalation and use of force training. Continue reading . . .

The Future of Crime Data in Policing

January 1, 2021 marked the end of an era when the FBI officially retired the nearly 100-year old Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system in lieu of a more comprehensive option known as the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The UCR, otherwise referred to as “simple summary reporting” (SRS) was introduced in 1929, and essentially reported aggregated counts of crimes at monthly and yearly intervals for participating law enforcement agencies. NIBRS was introduced in 1982 in an attempt to modernize the UCR, emphasizing incident-level data collection rather than aggregate-level. The purpose of this was to provide more detail and context about each incident (e.g. details on victims or offenders of crime, characteristics of the incident) to improve crime data quality (and quantity). The comprehensive data collected via NIBRS would allow for more opportunities to analyze patterns of crime and apply it to the field. However, one downside of NIBRS is that data are more burdensome for law enforcement agencies to collect. Further, participation in both UCR and NIBRS is voluntary for law enforcement agencies, meaning that additional burden might affect participation rates. Not surprisingly, participation rates are typically higher for the UCR, making it the preferred official source for reported crime data up until very recently. Continue reading . . .

Defunding the Police: an Evidence-Based Approach?

In the months following the death of George Floyd, there have been an increasing number of protests aimed at taking a stand against police brutality and “defunding” the police. The slogan “defund the police” has since been adopted by various activist groups and is now being seriously debated by politicians and lawmakers across the country. Despite the fact that Americans are mixed on whether they support the idea, the slogan has nonetheless become an increasingly popular political talking point. While the argument that America’s police departments are in need of reform is not without merit, that does not mean that defunding the police is the answer.

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Sentence Length and Recidivism: A Review of the Research

In response to increasing concerns about jail and prison overcrowding, many officials across the U.S. have undertaken different efforts aimed at reducing the prison population, including Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. In December 2020, Gascón introduced a policy to eliminate all prison sentence enhancements, thereby sharply reducing sentence lengths for offenders committing crimes with aggravating factors such as causing great bodily injury or use of a deadly weapon. In Special Directive 20-08, the new DA claimed that research and data show that longer sentence lengths are more likely to increase recidivism relative to shorter sentences.

While the directive cites one unpublished study in support of the finding, it is unclear whether this finding holds when considering the wider body of research on the topic. Namely, research findings can vary quite a bit across studies, so we argue that a critical examination of the research literature is warranted. When considering the research on the relationship between incarceration and recidivism, many studies compare custodial with non-custodial sentences, and fewer examine the impact of varying incarceration lengths on recidivism. Considering that everyone subject to a possible sentence enhancement will be serving some type of custodial sentence, the latter is more relevant concerning Gascón’s recent policy change. To assess the claims mentioned in Special Directive 20-08, my colleague Kent Scheidegger and I conducted a detailed review of the research on this topic.

UPDATE: The full-length version of this paper has been posted through the Social Science Research Network.

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