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January 11, 2016

"A Most Violent Year: What left and right got wrong about crime in 2015"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by Thomas Abt via The Marshall Project.  Here are excerpts:

Was 2015 the year of the Ferguson Effect? Conservatives scream yes, progressives shout back no.  Let’s step away from the din to examine whether all this yelling is getting us anywhere, and whether we’ve missed some useful explanations and effective policies that have been under our noses this whole time.

Last May, Heather Mac Donald of the conservative Manhattan Institute penned a controversial piece arguing that recent upticks in violence might signal a new national crime wave....  Mac Donald was wrong on several counts.  First, she initially linked gun violence and homicide to crime overall, without offering evidence for doing so.  Second, any criminologist will tell you that policing is only one factor of many in determining rates of violence.  And third, the best and most thorough examination of “broken windows” policing recently revealed that when narrowly focused on solving problems in partnership with the community, broken windows is successful — when it isn’t, then not so much.

Progressives did not take these charges lying down.  Many pushed back, asserting there was simply no evidence of a spike in violent crime.  One widely cited report by the progressive Brennan Center for Justice admitted that homicide in 25 of the nation’s largest cities jumped 14.6% in 2015, but argued that the current rate is near historic lows, that rates vary widely and that any increases are localized and not part of a national trend.  Moreover, they asserted that any increase was due to “root causes,” i.e. poverty, unemployment, and other structural factors, not policing.

The Brennan Center was also mistaken in a number of ways.  First, while it is true that violence remains historically low (and that crime overall continues to fall), a 14.6% national spike in murder would be the largest single-year increase since at least 1960.  Furthermore, while local rates of violence often fluctuate, national rates are more stable, and the Brennan Center’s own data shows that murder is up in 18 of 25 of the nation’s largest cities.  As for “root causes,” there is little evidence of a direct connection between violence and structural factors like poverty and unemployment.  And none of those factors changed significantly last year, so they can hardly explain the surge of violence.

To summarize, the increase in homicides appears real, but there is no broader national crime wave.  It is unclear what is driving the problem, but my own hunch — and it is still just a hunch at this point — involves a criminological phenomenon called legal cynicism.  Multiple studies have demonstrated that, controlling for other factors, when communities view the police and criminal justice system as illegitimate, they become more violent.  When people believe the system is unwilling or unable to help them, they are more likely to take the law into their own hands, creating the cycles of violent retribution...

Cynicism about the law might also explain why the biggest homicide spikes in 2015 occurred in places like St. Louis, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, where there was unrest after controversial uses of police force, and why Boston, with its recent history of positive police and community collaboration, had the largest single decrease in homicide of any large city.  In order to address cynicism in the streets, we have to address cynicism in our public conversation about guns, crime, and punishment.  Violence can fracture a community, but so can violent, partisan, absolutist rhetoric on television, in print, and on social media.

Prior related post:

January 11, 2016 at 08:46 AM | Permalink


One thing that probably led homicides and gun crimes being committed that could/should have been prevented--the Obama DoJ's staggering drop in gun prosecutions. For all of Obama's fulminating against gun violence, he has (a) granted clemency to gun criminals and (b) dropped the prosecution of gun crimes at the federal level. The incongruity of his actions with his heated (and moralistic) rhetoric is stunning. He casts moral aspersions on those who believe that the law-abiding should have access to guns when he is lessening the heat on criminals having them.

And, it must not go undiscussed--the recent Philly cop shooting--seems that guy committed a serious gun crime a short while ago, and got a slap on the wrist. Doug will wail (rhetorically) over Weldon Angelos, but says nothing about a fully preventable armed assault on a cop.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 11, 2016 12:15:20 PM

Its not gun crimes thats the problem, at ones that can be controlled.

Mental illness was spotted in some of these school shootings and zero was done.

Prosecuting gun crimes isnt the solution, neither is more gun control.

Chicago is high on gun control laws. They had 3,000 in 2015.

There are millions of guns out there, not going to control the last 50 yrs of sales.

Violent video games and movies and TV is just as bad. An erosion of basic morals, respect and personnel responsibility is of major concern. Along with its easy to get a criminal rap sheet going, domestic, owi, both eliminate you from guns and ammunition.

Along with mary Jane and hard drugs. Feds grap people and toss them away, based on their x and y axis of their sentenceing guidelines and Judges the robots that they are, carry it out. (Crim hist & instant offense + mandatories.)

Media gives them all the exposure these loosers want. Its a combination if all of this has generated the shootings. You can gave more gun control and longer sentences, but it is as effective as the federal budget that we dont have.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jan 11, 2016 1:14:30 PM

'Cynicism about the law' and the justice system as a whole is a major driver. 'Making a Murderer on Netflix is a prime example of why programs like that re-enforce the populace's bitterness that is directed towards law enforcement and the justice system in general.

Posted by: frank | Jan 11, 2016 1:44:57 PM

I liked the neutrality of this article, presenting both sides of a story. I see academic teaching in the same light, to present both sides, and have students think about them both.

Presentation of both sides is also part of journalistic ethics. Presenting one side, even if absolutely true, is propaganda, and lying by omission (a Kissinger lie).

If this blog were to adopt that view, of presenting both sides, rather than being left of center, it would improve. It may not be as popular, because most lawyers are rent seeking Democratic Party members dependent on big government for their incomes. But, it would be better.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 11, 2016 2:30:50 PM

federalist - As I'm sure you know, the vast majority of gun crime is prosecuted by local governments, not the federal government. Surely you aren't suggesting that persons who Obama granted clemency to are responsible for the increase in homicides? When you say "staggering drop in gun prosecutions," what does that mean? What are the numbers under Bush, for example, as compared to Obama?

Posted by: vachesacree | Jan 11, 2016 3:25:45 PM

vachesacree--Google is your friend--Mother Jones did an article about this. The Powerline guys have a chart as well.

As to your point, so what if the vast majority of gun crime prosecutions are at the state level? If the feds significantly dropped prosecutions, that is highly likely to have resulted in less deterrence/incapacitation and more gun crime and could easily be a factor in the unmistakable increase in homicides.

And no, I am not suggesting that the clemency is responsible for gun crimes--what I am suggesting is that the President's very public stance on gun violence is very different from his actions. Can you resolve the apparent incongruity here?

So, vachesacree, why don't you report back to us on what you find? Let's see if you have the stones to take me on here.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 11, 2016 3:40:57 PM

federalist - So you make claims and then I'm supposed to do the research to back them up? "Stones" or not, it's an interesting approach. I don't know where the "Powerline guys" chart is; wouldn't it be easier for you to find, since you apparently are already familiar?

You also suggest that " the President's very public stance on gun violence is very different from his actions." Again, this is a claim without any actual support. How many pardons or commutations for firearms offenses has Obama granted? Out of how many total? How does this compare to past Presidents? You're the one making the claims; why do you not want to back them up?

Posted by: vachesacree | Jan 11, 2016 5:06:50 PM

Vachesacree, because I know I am right about the facts--Obama's DOJ has dropped gun prosecutions significantly--like I said Google is your friend:


Mother Jones did something on this as well.

As for the other issue--think about it--if Obama is soooooo concerned about gun violence etc., then why give clemency to so many gun criminals? It's, of course, possible to reconcile Obama's stance with his clemency record, but taken together with the drop in gun prosecution, he looks like he's saying one thing and doing another. Deal with that.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 11, 2016 6:21:07 PM

Thanks for the chart! It shows that in 2015, there 6,000 firearms convictions, down from about 7,000 the year Obama took office. Of course, it's easy to say that 1,000 fewer prosecutions at the federal level has had some effect on the overall crime rate in the US, but considering that there are probably hundreds of thousands of gun prosecutions at the state level every year, I'm not sure you can claim that fewer federal prosecutions led to more gun crimes. In fact, firearm homicides went down every year from 2012 to 2014, so maybe fewer federal gun prosecutions aren't the answer.

As to the clemency issue, I'm still not seeing any numbers. What is "so many gun criminals"? 10, 50, 100, 200? He's only granted clemency about 250 times, so it couldn't be that many. Here's a list of pardons (not including commutations). I count 2 gun crimes, 3 if you include "armed robbery." Maybe there are "so many" commutations? I haven't looked it up.


Posted by: vachesacree | Jan 11, 2016 6:59:13 PM

vachesacree, once again, if you look at the chart, the Bush convictions in 2008 were 8000, with the Obama current rate dropping to 6000. While that may not sound like much, you have to remember, it's cumulative per year discrepancy, and increased gun violence is probably a bit of a lagging indicator. In any event, of course you don't deal with the obvious problem with Obama's yapping---he rails at the scourge of gun violence yet the Obama DoJ is far less aggressive in prosecuting gun criminals. It's impossible to put lipstick on that pig.

As for the clemency--many of the drug criminals that he gave clemency to "used" a firearm in the commission of the drug offense. Once again, hard to square his stated vehemence about gun violence with his actions.

Si vous voulez courir avec les grands chiens, puis apportez un "A" jeu. Sinon, restez sur le porche.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 11, 2016 8:34:33 PM

federalist - How do you know that "many of the drug criminals that he gave clemency to 'used' a firearm in the commission of the drug offense"? Once again, it's easy to throw out blanket statements like that without any support whatsoever. How many? What percentage? How does that compare to prior administrations?

I get the broader point you're trying to make - that Obama decries gun violence while the DOJ doesn't prosecute as many gun crimes - but there could be any number of reasons why the prosecutions are down that are not inconsistent with the President speaking out against gun violence. Like I said, firearm homicides have gone down every year since 2012, so maybe federal prosecution of gun crimes is not directly tied to firearm violence. You just can't show any hypocrisy here, sorry, French epigrams or not.

Posted by: vachesacree | Jan 12, 2016 12:26:23 PM

vachesacree--you've got to be kidding me. This stuff is easy to find: http://www.justice.gov/pardon/obama-commutations (do a search of firearm). It's significant--39 hits.

But on the other point you show yourself willing to clown yourself for Obama. The guy is running around yapping about imposing new laws (which would affect largely the law-abiding) and he significantly drops prosecution on gun criminals. If you can't see the incongruity and cynicism of that, we'll you're just a true believer. I can explain it to you--I cannot understand it for you.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 12, 2016 2:00:01 PM

federalist - It's actually about 25 defendants; the word "firearm" comes up more because you can charge the same gun in various ways. I think the total number of pardons and commutations he's issued is about 250, so 25 is hardly "so many." The bigger point being, it's ridiculous to try to link 25 commutations with an increase in homicides in the US.

It's not inconsistent to speak out against gun violence while federal firearms prosecutions are dropping. Were there fewer arrests for gun crimes? Certainly the NRA has been trying to hobble ATF's ability to investigate gun crimes. Were fewer cases presented to federal prosecutors? Were prosecutorial resources diverted to other areas? All those factors could affect the number of prosecutions. The number of prosecutions also fell dramatically between 2005 and 2008. What accounted for that drop? And I still don't see any evidence that a drop in prosecutions at the federal level, or 25 commutations of sentences for crimes involving guns, has contributed directly to an increase in homicides. As I've said repeatedly, firearms homicides dropped from 2012 to 2014, so what does that say about your theory?

So you can throw around any kind of derogatory names you want; the point is, your claim that the drop in gun prosecutions "probably led homicides and gun crimes being committed that could/should have been prevented" doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Posted by: vachesacree | Jan 12, 2016 3:33:15 PM

"The bigger point being, it's ridiculous to try to link 25 commutations with an increase in homicides in the US." Have you always been this stupid, or did you have to work at it? I never said that clemency has increased crime--what I said that it's incongruous with his yapping about gun violence. Nothing says "I hate gun violence" like some clemency to gun criminals.

Second of all, genius, I didn't pin my argument on gun crime dropping, what I referred to was but for causation. If you significantly drop gun prosecutions, given the federal hammer available, it's highly likely that the drop in prosecutions kept criminals on the street that shouldn't have been and there was some resulting victimization--how much, who knows, but you discount that as a possible cause--that's just plain dumb.

But you're right, vachesacree, having thousands more gun criminals on the streets is a good idea. Amazing how you're willing to clown yourself for the One. Barack Obama hates gun violence, but his DoJ drops the prosecution of gun criminals because you know nothing says "I hate gun crimes" like reducing prosecutions of gun criminals.

So, given the fact that I was talking about "but for causation" not an increase, wanna retract this silly comment: "the point is, your claim that the drop in gun prosecutions "probably led homicides and gun crimes being committed that could/should have been prevented" doesn't hold up to scrutiny."

Posted by: federalist | Jan 12, 2016 8:45:22 PM

Vachesacree--you mischaracterize my posts, and then bail. Fairly typical.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 14, 2016 9:12:04 AM

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