America's surge in violence: Why we must reduce violent crime for prison reform to work

Adam Gelb, Opinion contributor
·4 min read

Amid the pandemic and protests last year, violent crime spiked. Homicides in 34 large cities rose 30%, a single-year jump that is unprecedented in modern American history.

In those cities alone, there were 1,268 more murders in 2020 than in 2019. On top of the tragic loss of life, the burst of violence represents a major setback for the movement to reduce incarceration and achieve racial justice.

There has been significant progress on these fronts: the overall rate of serious crime is less than half what it was in the early 1990s, and a wave of state and federal reforms has cut the level of punishment per crime, especially for minor offenses.

As a result, the number of people locked up at the end of 2020 had fallen to 1.8 million, a sizable dip from the 2.3 million held at the peak of U.S. incarceration in 2008. But a large chunk of that drop came from reductions in arrests and other COVID-related adjustments, which may prove temporary. Jail populations already are creeping back to prepandemic levels.

The upshot is that if we hope to further shrink the number of Americans behind bars and reduce racial disparities, we can’t rely on cutting punishment alone. We must also curb the commission of crime in the first place, particularly the serious, violent crime that victimizes so many young Black men and lands them in prison.

Some quick calculations illustrate the point. Say the 2020 homicide spike will turn out to have been smaller overall than it was in the big cities, maybe 15%. Assume also that perpetrators will be caught and convicted in about 60% of the cases (the average homicide clearance rate in recent years). In that conservative scenario, roughly 1,500 more people will enter prison, each serving about 14 years (the most recent estimate of the average time served for murder by those who are released).

That’s enough people to occupy a prison bed for nearly 7.7 million days, or compressed into a single year, to fill 42 500-bed prisons — just from the additional murders in 2020.

That’s on top of a base number of about 16,000 murders a year, which yields enough prisoners to fill more than 260 such facilities for a year. Then there are the tens of thousands of non-fatal shootings, assaults, sex crimes and other violent offenses that occur annually, further fueling prison growth.

The once-verboten topic of shortening sentences for violent offenses is now gaining traction across ideological lines. But even if reform efforts succeed, the prison math is virtually insurmountable.

We simply won’t shed our status as the planet’s leading incarcerator without reducing violence.

We know how to reduce violence

The good news is that we know a lot more today about how to control violent crime than we did at the start of the prison-building boom in the 1970s.

Over the years, local governments, nonprofits and community-led organizations have found effective ways to intervene: direct resources toward the small share of people and places where violence concentrates; balance enforcement and prevention strategies, giving individuals meaningful opportunities to step away from gangs and avoid arrest and prosecution; and improve trust between police and communities, engaging police leaders who have credibility with residents to build bridges, administer programs and develop policies.

The vast bulk of this work must be accomplished locally, led by mayors, police chiefs and community members. But the new administration in Washington can also play a crucial role in guiding efforts toward solutions that research says will save the most lives.

Focus on most violent cities

A nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice task force outlined a plan for strategic federal assistance to the 40 cities hardest hit by homicide. By one estimate, a $900-million targeted federal investment in those cities over eight years could cut murders in half, and save many times that much in social and taxpayer costs. President Joe Biden endorsed this plan during his campaign.

Perhaps the 2020 homicide spike is a blip, a fleeting artifact of the toxic mix of pandemic stress, economic hardship and protest outrage. Once the COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing mandates end, the face-to-face outreach that characterizes the most successful anti-violence programs can resume, and the bloodshed hopefully will ebb.

But even before last year’s startling rise in crime, too many Americans were becoming victims, and too many were facing long years behind bars. Until we change that, the death toll will mount and the pace of progress toward a more racially equitable justice system will be glacially slow.

Adam Gelb is president and chief executive officer of the Council on Criminal Justice, and a former senior state government official, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staffer and director of public safety initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why reducing violence is essential for prison reform to work