Wherein the New York Times Joins My Analysis of the Surge in Murder

Yesterday, I wrote an entry that focused on the explosion in murder in this country over the last two years, an explosion that has grossly disproportionately harmed black people.  I thought this a particularly noteworthy subject on Martin Luther King Day.  Now, a matter of hours later, the New York Times, of all things, features a discussion of the same subject that in some ways seems like a slightly different draft of my piece.

It is, to say the least, unusual that the NYT and I see any significant issue in crime the same way, but at my age, I’ll take what I can get.  The Times’ view of the causes of the spike is largely misguided, in my view, but its description of the problem is spot-on, and belies the dismissive attitude of many in the criminal justice “reform” movement.

Here’s how it starts:

In 2020, murders in the United States spiked more than 27 percent — the largest percentage increase in at least six decades. Last year, murders went up again.

Those murders resulted in the deaths of thousands more Americans, and returned the U.S. to homicide rates not seen since the mid-1990s. (While murders and violent crime overall are up, other crimes are down.)

The effects are felt unequally across the country. Shootings are historically concentrated in impoverished, minority communities. In a typical U.S. city, a small segment of neighborhoods account for most of the violence.

Most homicide victims are Black. And Black Americans were eight times as likely to be murder victims in 2020 as their white counterparts.

In the hardest-hit communities, gun violence is so common that it’s become a part of life. “I hear gunshots every day,” Angela Hernandez-Sutton, who lives on Chicago’s West Side, told The Sun-Times. “I just listen to hear where they’re coming from, then move to the front or the back of the house.”

The Times then continues:

Such daily experiences have gotten relatively little national attention. Anna Harvey, a public safety researcher at New York University, told me the concentration of violence probably explains why. White and affluent Americans have been less directly affected by the murder spike, but they’re also more likely to influence what news outlets cover and what politicians talk about.

This is the Times’ way of saying that the head-in-the-clouds professoriate in Palo Alto, Cambridge and New Haven can’t be bothered.  And we should be mindful that getting too emphatic about the failure of newly triumphant criminal justice reform would be, ummmm, impolite.  We can’t expect the Times to load too much inconvenient truth into only a few short column inches.

The article then starts to explore possible causes:

Why murders spiked

From 1991 to 2014, America’s murder rate plummeted by more than half. Experts still don’t agree on why that happened. Among the many possibilities: mass incarceration, changes in policing, reduced exposure to lead and video games keeping more young men occupied.

“Mass incarceration” is Timesspeak for (1) the fact that a tiny one-half of one percent of the population is in prison, almost always after compiling an extensive criminal record; and (2) still, when that one-half of one percent consists of (mostly) young men inclined towards violence, yes, taking them out of civil society will make civil society safer.

Let it not be said that the New York Times cannot learn.

The “changes in policing” to which the Times refers are not explicated in that paragraph, but for those who have been following the subject, it’s not hard to understand.  New York City’s own proactive “broken windows policing,” which produced spectacular success in bringing down the murder rate under Giuliani and Bloomberg, started to spread.  As more and more of America adopted more aggressive and computer assisted policing, concentrating of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods (could we stow the wail of racism for just a moment?), violent crime tanked.

I will save for a later post a discussion of where the Times gets it right and where it gets it wrong in analyzing causes for our murder spike and possible solutions, but I have to give the paper credit for the following paragraphs, which, for all their hedging tone, are honest:

In the short term, there’s solid evidence for policing — specifically, more focused policing, targeting the people and places most likely to be violent. With some of these strategies, the police work with other social services to lift violent perpetrators out of that life.

“I’m as much a reformer as anybody, but the short-term solutions around high violence are mainly punitive,” John Roman, a researcher at the University of Chicago, told me. “There’s no getting around that.”

No getting around indeed.


2 Responses

  1. Rick Nevin says:

    First, I have to thank you for quoting the New York Times statement that “reduced exposure to lead” is one possible explanation for the crime decline. Like you, “at my age, I’ll take what I can get”.

    Second, I really wish that you would comment on the change in arrest and incarceration rates by age over the last few decades, and the associated change in the extent to which the prison population “consists of (mostly) young men”.

    I have a new post that might make it easier for you to consider this issue with an open mind, because I show updated imprisonment trends by age and race/ethnicity that totally discredit grossly inaccurate information presented as “Facts” by the Sentencing Project.

    So, now that I have your attention, the key takeaway is the astonishing decline in the imprisonment rate for young men from 2001-2020:
    • The imprisonment rate for males ages 18-19 fell 81%.
    • The imprisonment rate for males ages 20-24 fell 66%, led by a 71% decline for Black males.
    • The imprisonment rate for males ages 25-29 fell 48%, led by a 65% decline for Black males.
    • The imprisonment rate for males ages 30-34 fell 37%, led by a 56% decline for Black males.

    The imprisonment rate decline for young men can be entirely explained by arrest rate declines, including much steeper declines for young black men. The arrest rate declines, in turn, can be explained by earlier declines in preschool lead exposure, including much steeper declines for black children.

    Arrest and imprisonment rates are still increasing for older adults born when preschool lead exposure was still increasing. The Sentencing Project would like to take credit for the decline in the overall prison population, but that decline reflects a decline in new prisoner admissions, caused by a decline in youth offending.

    – Rick

  2. Brett Miler says:

    Hi Bill –
    I note in your analysis that you refute the premise of “mass incarceration” because only “one-half of one percent” is in prison. Even with that supposedly small amount, I would just like to comment on two points – 1. It would probably be unaffordable for the country at large to incarcerate much more than that percent of the population for any significant length of time and the already significant costs of imprisoning the people we do now should be reduced 2. I view the act of imprisonment as a necessary failure in that it may be necessary to incarcerate people, but it most likely represents a range of failure of forces (parents, schools, social programs) and that we should try to intervene and reform the criminally inclined and if not, we should recognize that some people may commit crimes due to forces not of their own making and recognizing that fact will make us a more compassionate society. Thank you for reading.

    Brett Miler