Author: Elizabeth Berger

The problem with reducing reliance on incarceration: A commentary on Vera’s “new paradigm” on sentencing

The United States should move away from incarceration and ultimately work toward a system that creates “real safety,” according to a new, widely circulated report from the Vera Institute of Justice. In the report, the authors claim that severe sentences do not deter crime nor help survivors of crime heal, and therefore are not achieving their intended purpose. However, the argument seems to be rooted in emotion rather than facts. The research actually presents a more nuanced picture.

The controversy regarding incarceration is not new, and has remained a major topic of debate in recent years. Clearly, there are many different opinions regarding the utility of incarceration and its effectiveness, many of which are emotionally-driven and not rooted in facts. Rather, the research on incarceration presents a very nuanced picture. It is simply naive to think that any one policy would be 100% effective or 0% effective, and these types of “all-or-nothing” arguments are often rooted in emotion rather than facts.

In this post, I’ll give an overview of the lengthy report’s executive summary and give my thoughts regarding their key points. Stay tuned for part two of this post, where I will perform a deeper assessment of the report in its entirety.

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Unsound statistical analysis misrepresents racial profiling in California police stop data

Findings from the California’s Racial & Identity Profiling Advisory (RIPA) Board’s Annual Report released earlier this month have sparked controversy after the results revealed that nonwhites are dispropotionately represented in police stops. The report also claimed that, of those stopped, nonwhites were searched more frequently, arrested more frequently, and more frequently engaged in physical confrontations with police officers. This led many people to conclude that the police are in fact, racist. However, it’s important to note that the practice of policing is far more complicated than what can be captured in datasets. While these data appear straightforward, studying racial bias is complicated.

There are myriad contextual factors at play that affect officer decisionmaking and police-citizen interactions, such that it is nearly impossible to attribute racial disparities solely to any one cause. Unfortunately, contextual factors are often not easily measured, or they might be ignored on the basis that these details are “less important.” But ignoring these key details leaves us with an incomplete understanding of the dynamics influencing these police encounters. So when it comes to the RIPA Board’s report, the findings seem straightforward, but a closer look shows some holes in the methodology that likely undermine the validity of the findings. To this end, the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) conducted a critical analysis of the report that highlighted numerous problems with the RIPA data and the methodology used in the report. In this post, I will summarize the key issues raised by the PORAC.

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Comparing nationwide violent crime estimates: Summary-based vs. incident-based reporting

The FBI released official 2021 crime statistics last month, but the data leaves major gaps in our understanding of national-level crime rates. Unfortunately, the numbers are incomplete this year because 36% of U.S. law enforcement agencies, some of them major cities, failed to submit their crime reports. This is largely because the FBI made major changes to the way that it collects crime data, making the submission process much more complicated. Rather than following the arduous process, many agencies simply declined to participate in last year’s data collection. In comparison, 2020 crime statistics included data from 85% of U.S. law enforcement agencies.

This post briefly reviews agency participation rates and discusses what that means for our current understanding of national-level crime. Then, using data from the years 2017-2020 (all of the years for which data from both systems are available),  I examine whether the two systems produce similar violent crime estimates. Continue reading . . .

Violent crime is a key issue for U.S. midterm election

Crime has become a big issue in the U.S. midterm elections. According to a recent Gallup poll, crime ranked as the second most important issue among voters, with 71% of registered voters saying it was either “extremely” or “very” important to their vote. This came second after the economy, which 85% of voters said would be extremely or very important to their vote. According to a different Gallup survey released a few weeks ago, more than half of Americans (56%) said there was more crime in their area compared to a year ago. According to Gallup, “That’s up a whopping 11 points from 2021 and 18 points from 2020, and is the highest mark ever measured.” This issue was a concern across party lines, with 73% of Republicans, 51% of Independents, and 42% of Democrats all agreeing that crime is getting worse (in 2020, these percentages were 38%, 38%, and 37%, respectively).

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Misconceptions about racial disparities in police investigations: Results from Tucson

Debates about racial inequalities in the criminal justice system have ramped up in the last several years. This has been largely driven by discussions about racially-biased police violence, but many also speculate about disparities in how the police treat crime victims. For example, one common belief is that the thoroughness of police investigations varies based on victim and officer race. But a recent study published in The Journal of Law and Economics (subscription required for access) suggests otherwise, at least in the context of residential burglary.

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2021 national crime rates are a mystery as FBI transitions to a new data system

Earlier this month, the FBI released the national-level crime statistics for 2021. According to that data, violent crime, particularly murder, remained a major issue in the United States. Crime remained relatively consistent from 2020 to 2021 with no statistically significant changes between years, though violent crime was still elevated compared to 2019 levels. From 2020 to 2021, national levels of violent crime decreased slightly (-1.0%), largely driven by decreases in robbery (-8.9%). Murders, however, increased (+4.3%). The data is available for download via the Crime Data Explorer, or it can be accessed using a new tool called the Law Enforcement Agency Reported Crime Analysis Tool (LEARCAT). But the data this year may be lower quality than years past, limiting our ability to draw inferences about national-level crime rates.

Policymakers and researchers rely on these data to understand state and national crime trends, but that may be more challenging this year. Unfortunately, the FBI’s plan to modernize its reporting of crime data has not gone according to plan, so it’s hard know how accurate these 2021 estimates are. The new system has advantages over the old system, but it is much more cumbersome and time-consuming to use, which has negatively impacted law enforcement agencies’ willingness to submit their data. And because of these low participation rates, there are huge gaps in nationwide crime statistics for 2021.

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Crime trends in California: 2021 rates show increase in violent crime

A new report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reviews some of the recently released state-level data on 2021 California crime rates. Once again, it seems like the authors are overselling the fact that crime rates are lower than the 1990s crime peak, although their findings are similar to what I found when I analyzed the data last month. Indeed, crime rates are lower than they were in the 1990s. But keep in mind that the 1990s saw a historic crime peak. If “success” means having crime rates that are lower than the historic peak, then that’s a pretty low bar for success. It’s almost like saying that the 2008 recession wasn’t that bad because it was still better than the Great Depression.

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Krasner insists that his policies are “working,” seemingly unconcerned about homicide rates

Over the last several years, the progressive prosecutor movement has grown in popularity, with more and more policy changes reducing penalties for certain crimes. A common theme is for district attorneys to restrict prosecutions for certain offenses, and to reduce the severity of punishments for cases that are prosecuted.

One example is Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has been dismissing more and more cases each year, despite the fact that the city recently reached its highest murder rate in history. He thinks that his approach is “working,” per a recent local news interview (originally reported by Heather McDonald in the Daily Mail and summarized in a CJLF post). In the interview, he incessently denied that his policies have negative consequences and was seemingly unconcerned about the homicide increase.

The sheer fact that homicides have increased in Philadelphia every year of Krasner’s term should be cause for concern. Not surprisingly, a deep dive into the research confirms that Krasner’s policies are at least partially to blame for the increase in homicides in Philadelphia.

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Philadelphia murder rates rise due to lenient sentences sought by progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner

As the progressive prosecutor movement grows in popularity, we see more and more policy changes that reduce penalties for certain crimes. One of the common themes is de-prosecution, or the discretionary decision to not prosecute certain criminal offenses. Another aspect of de-prosecution involves reducing the severity of punishment for individuals who are prosecuted. The movement came about due to the belief of many progressives that mass incarceration actually increases crime through supposed “criminogenic” effects. That is, they believe that people who serve long periods of time in prison will adapt to that culture and learn certain behaviors that will make them worse criminals. However, opponents argue that de-prosecution policies don’t hold offenders sufficiently accountable, and will only encourage more crime as offenders learn that there are little to no consequences for their behavior.

In Philadelphia, de-prosecution began in 2015 with District Attorney Seth Williams. This resulted in a substantial decline in both new cases prosecuted and sentencings (particularly for drug possession, drug trafficking, and felony possession of firearms), a trend that accelerated when District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018. At the annual Federalist Society Convention last year, Krasner boasted that his policies are “on the side of the data,” vehemently denying that de-prosecution increases crime. However, a 2022 study published in Criminology and Public Policy refuted Krasner’s claims. The study, conducted by Thomas Hogan, revealed a causal link between de-prosecution and increased homicides in Philadelphia.

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BJS releases 2021 victimization statistics

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released information on 2021 victimization rates derived from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). There were no statistically significant changes in violent victimization or property victimization rates from 2020 to 2021. However, the violent victimization rate increased in urban areas, from 19.4 to 24.5 per 1,000. The percentage of violent victimizations reported to police increased (+6%), as did the percentage of violent crime victims who sought assistance from victim service providers (+3%). The percentage of property victimizations reported to police decreased (-2%), which was mostly due to a decrease in reporting for “other theft” (-3%). This post outlines the major findings from the report, while more detailed information can be found via the NCVS’ interactive data dashboard.

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