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March 9, 2021

Highlighting why those concerned about mass incarceration need to be concerned with murder spike

Adam Gelb has this notable new USA Today opinion piece under the headline "America's surge in violence: Why we must reduce violent crime for prison reform to work: We simply won’t shed our status as the planet’s leading incarcerator without reducing violence." Here are excerpts:

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....

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.

March 9, 2021 at 08:59 PM | Permalink

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