Posted on July 19, 2021

Progressive Policies Won’t Stop the Crime Wave

Charles Fain Lehman and Rafael A. Mangual, City Journal, July 8, 2021

With last year’s devastating homicide spike continuing, some proponents of “progressive” criminal-justice reforms are more convinced than ever that they have the right approach. Eric Levitz, writing at New York’s Intelligencer blog, views 2020’s 30 percent year-over-year increase in murder not as a political liability but as yet another reason to support a progressive reform agenda—one that reduces the footprints of incarceration and policing.


Levitz offers the usual battery of non-policing approaches: investing in preschool, summer jobs, and violence-interruption programs; increasing the minimum wage; expanding health insurance; and erecting barriers to firearm acquisition. The available evidence lends some support to the idea that these tactics can reduce crime. But they don’t—on their own or together—offer the same reliability and extensibility that the traditional methods of policing and incarceration do.

Levitz’s reforms are unlikely to prove consistently effective remedies to a violent-crime spike as large as the current one. Violence interruption can be a useful tool when it works, which is far from a given. In New York City’s implementation, the interrupters had an effect in one of two neighborhoods tested; in Pittsburgh, crime rates actually went up following implementation. Similarly, minimum-wage increases may be associated with an increase in property crime, instigated by the unemployment they cause among young people.


To Levitz, the murder spike represents the failure of “the pro-carceral status quo,” but the trend has run against that status quo for some time. Nationwide, imprisonment and arrests declined 17 percent and 25 percent, respectively, between 2009 and 2019. Many jurisdictions have dramatically curtailed bail. Some have gone further: California engineered a mass jail depopulation, New York City announced the closure of Rikers Island, the federal government has passed sentencing reforms many times, federal investigations and monitorships of local police departments continue to grow, and progressive prosecutors have been elected in big cities across the country.

The evidence supports traditional approaches, even if Levitz pretends it doesn’t. Numerous studies have causally linked policing with significant crime declines, including a study of municipal expenditures on policing that found “reduced victim costs of $1.63 for each additional dollar spent on police in 2010, implying that U.S. cities are under-policed.” {snip}

Other studies have shown that merely increasing police presence produces crime declines in and around the affected areas. A study of increased police presence due to high-terror threat alerts in and around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. found that “an increase in police presence of about 50 percent leads to a statistically and economically significant decrease in the level of crime on the order of 15 percent.” {snip}

As for incarceration, Levitz hangs his hat on the claim that “long prison sentences do not deter crime, and are actually counterproductive for public safety.” But the evidence on deterrence is more mixed than his piece lets on. A 2007 study of California’s three-strikes law, for example, found 17 percent to 20 percent declines in the felony arrest rates of those with two strikes on their records. {snip}

{snip} Even modest estimates of the portion of the 1990s’ great crime decline that can be attributed to incarceration put the number at around 25 percent. And the data remain clear that, for high-rate, highly dangerous offenders, incarceration can have large crime-prevention benefits.