Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez

Crime, a Symposium: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Aaron Chalfin and A Survey

March 16, 2023

What happened in 2022 and why? Where are we headed in 2023?

What happened in 2022 and why? Where are we headed in 2023?

Ten experts weigh in

Articles in this symposium:

In 2020, murders in the United States rose nationally by more than 25%, by far the largest single-year increase since reliable records have been available. In New York City, murders — which in 2019 had reached a historic low — rose by almost 40%. Shootings nearly doubled. Lethal violence continued to rise, albeit slightly, in 2021 before falling by approximately 10% in 2022. 

But murders remain approximately 35% above their pre-pandemic levels and other serious crimes have followed suit. Why did this happen and what will the future bring? In this special symposium, Vital City brings together some of the nation’s most thoughtful analysts of crime and justice to opine on the state of public safety in America’s supereminent city.

New York has always been a crime-control innovator. While the NYPD, the nation’s second municipal police department, was established in 1844, policing in what would later become the city dates back to the 1620s — when Old New York was still New Amsterdam. In more recent times, NYC was the originator of the data-driven COMPSTAT model of policing and became the poster child for American crime reduction in the 1990s, when homicides declined from more than 2,200 in 1990 to fewer than 700 by 1998. In the decade prior to the pandemic, NYC — already among the safest large cities in the United States — incredibly experienced an additional 50% reduction in its murder rate during a period in which the national murder rate was flat.

In 2019, after three decades of improvements to public safety, New York, which is (and always has been) awash in poverty, concentrated disadvantage and illegal guns trafficked up the I-95 corridor, had a homicide rate that was commensurate with U.S. suburbs and which compared not unfavorably with western European capitals like London and Paris. 

What Happened?

When violence rose in 2020, we were reminded, in the prescient words of Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey, that the peace had been uneasy all along. While crime had been managed successfully through targeted law enforcement activity and a blanket of social services, the conditions under which crime can thrive — the so-called “root causes” of crime like poverty, fragile families and concentrated disadvantage — remained present. When the pandemic hit our shores, followed soon afterwards by the murder of George Floyd, setting off a wave of economic and social unrest, NYC was not immune to the wave of violence that rocked the entire nation.

Why did lethal violence rise in the United States in 2020 and not in other countries? Was it due to the destabilizing and traumatizing effects of the pandemic? To the weakening of community ties as schools and community organizations shuttered their doors? To a spate of gun purchases made shortly after the pandemic began? To the public-health induced decline in police proactivity in the early days of the pandemic or to the retreat of proactive policing in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder? Was it due to a package of criminal justice reforms that were passed shortly before the pandemic began? Or was it due to what might be called “involuntary criminal justice reform” — the idea that, irrespective of a progressive political agenda, courts slowed down and jail populations shrunk in 2020 as our society struggled to contain the spread of COVID-19? Since all of these things happened at the same time, it is almost impossible to disambiguate between each of the potential causes.

If we want to understand the world, we are going to need to make some educated guesses. Contributors to this volume have advanced some nuanced and thoughtful theories about what has happened since March 2020. John Hall and Peter Moskos conceive of New York’s package of criminal justice reforms as representing a perfect storm of leniency that shocked the system at what turned out to be exactly the wrong time. They suggest that any singular reform might not have made a large impact on public safety, but the confluence of the reforms together — higher pre-trial release rates, Raise the Age legislation, discovery reform and reduced jail populations — have been impactful in the aggregate, serving to embolden the so-called “power few” who drive the violence.

Violence has risen in cities with and without reforms and with more traditional versus more progressive prosecutor’s offices.

John Pfaff pushes back against the notion that criminal justice reforms have been the culprit, focusing on bail reform in particular. He puts forth two main arguments. First, the impact of bail reform has been fairly modest as release rates at arraignments were already high in 2019, prior to passage of the law. Second, while the rate of new arrests rose among released defendants in 2020, by 2021 the rate had fallen back to 2021 levels, a finding which he argues is more consistent with a pandemic-specific explanation for the increase in violence. A third argument, not made in his essay, but advanced by Pfaff in other writing, notes that NYC’s rise in violence is far from unique. Violence has risen in cities with and without reforms and with more traditional versus more progressive prosecutor’s offices. 

Thomas Abt reminds us that debates about criminal justice reform must account for the enormous reduction in police proactivity as well as the historic proliferation of gun purchases in 2020, an unusually large number of which were subsequently recovered at crime scenes. At the same time, as Hall and Moskos note, bail reform is one of many changes to prosecutorial and judicial practice that occurred in or shortly before 2020. The judicial process ground to a halt in 2020 as cases took longer to prosecute, charges were dropped and jail populations fell for reasons beyond bail reform. Hence, the oft-repeated fact that violence rose nearly everywhere — in places with and without reforms — while relevant, may be less powerful than meets the eye. Ultimately the complexity of the policy terrain since 2020 leaves us with the unenviable task of reconciling a host of conflicting evidence.

While the focus of much of the rhetoric has been on progressive reforms, Darcel Clark and Eric Gonzalez — the elected district attorneys of the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively — remind us that law enforcement has not been sitting idly by as crime has risen. Targeted gang enforcement, a joint effort of the NYPD and prosecutors’ offices, continues to play a role in incapacitating the power few. At the same time, prosecutors have worked to strategically narrow the net of the justice system while enhancing partnerships with community-based organizations.

What will happen next?

We often ask experts to make predictions, hoping that studying the past will lead to clarity about the future. Experts predict all sorts of things: movements in the stock market, inflation, agricultural output, and all manner of geopolitical events. As it turns out, the future is difficult to predict and experts tend not to be very good clairvoyants. Data are imperfect and many events occur at the same time, making prospective predictions even harder than retrospective analysis, which is hard enough.

Crime is incredibly concentrated — across space, by age and gender and among offenders and social networks. Just as a small share of customers tend to purchase a large share of a business’ products, a small number of individuals (mostly young men) living in a small number of places drive the violence.

The experts commissioned to share their thoughts with Vital City have, in their wisdom, been circumspect about their ability to forecast the future. Charles Fain Lehman casts his prediction of future crime as a choice that society must make. He is uncertain about the future precisely because he is uncertain about how policymakers will navigate the coming years. After all, there are inevitably tradeoffs in the provision of justice. Increasing the burden to convict a defendant means fewer wrongful convictions but also more guilty defendants who will go free. While smart technocrats can minimize the tradeoffs, they can never get rid of them.

John Roman and Anthony Washburn have made a more specific set of predictions, wisely discerning between lethal violence and other, less serious, types of crime. With respect to shootings, Roman and Washburn note that even during periods of broad secular change in rates of gun violence, annual changes are usually small. After nearly doubling in 2020, shootings in NYC stabilized in 2021 and declined in 2022 — which makes them optimistic that 2023 will bring further declines. With respect to other crimes, Roman and Washburn note that there is momentum driving these crimes upwards, a possibility also noted by Eric Gonzalez. They forecast a rise in these crimes in 2023, noting that if rising interest rates lead to a recession, there might be yet greater upward pressure on property crime rates, which have historically risen during periods of economic contraction.

I share the reluctant prognosticators’ humility, but we can perhaps develop a useful framework by considering what we know about crime and violence in general. What are the iron laws of crime and what implications do these have for forecasting crime in NYC?

First, crime is incredibly concentrated — across space, by age and gender and among offenders and social networks. Just as a small share of customers tend to purchase a large share of a business’ products, a small number of individuals (mostly young men) living in a small number of places drive the violence. The city’s success in returning to the good old days of 2019 will depend on how well policymakers are able to engage with a few thousand people among a population of 9 million.

Second, in contrast to the prevailing wisdom among social theorists in the 1970s, who saw crime as a social phenomenon that society could do little to prevent without addressing so-called “root causes”, social scientists have, in the intervening years, uncovered a wide array of evidence that serious crime can be meaningfully shifted by public policy. Violence is, on average, responsive to public investments in law enforcement — especially when law enforcement eschews mass enforcement strategies and instead concentrates its attention on the small number of hot spots and the relatively small number of individuals who drive the violence. By leveraging the group dynamics of violence and the retaliatory nature of the disputes that are responsible for a large share of the violence we’re seeing today, law enforcement can be yet more effective.

Social services strategies can also have a meaningful effect on violence. As history teaches us and as Jeffrey Butts reminds us in his contribution, the impulse to take advantage of others, even to hurt others, is sadly universal — yet most people are not violent. Butts encourages us to recognize the importance of social forces in creating the conditions under which violence thrives, an insight which suggests that community investments can make a difference in controlling crime. Among the many community investments for which there is promising evidence are place-based crime control strategies such as increasing the availability of trees and green space, restoring vacant lots, public-private partnerships in the form of business improvement districtsstreet lighting, and reducing physical disorder. These types of investments empower ordinary community members to reclaim public spaces and make those spaces less inviting to those who would take advantage of disorder and disarray.

Despite some challenging times created by the COVID-19 pandemic, New York remains a dynamic, vibrant and incredibly well-resourced city that has many advantages that its less affluent counterparts do not have.

There is also evidence that social service-based strategies such as summer jobs for disadvantaged youth, cognitive behavioral therapymental health treatment and local nonprofit formation focused on building strong communities more generally can have important crime-reducing effects. For all of the aforementioned interventions — law enforcement included — the key, especially when it comes to short-term success, is to focus on the small number of people and places that drive the risk.

Violence tends to beget further violence. The last time that U.S. homicide rates increased by 25%, they remained high for a generation. Thus, even if we are still far from the “bad old days,” it is not unreasonable to view rising violence with a considerable degree of urgency. While we probably have a better sense of how to control rising violence than we did a generation ago, above all, regardless of one’s politics or approach to criminal justice policy, maintaining public safety requires resources. While it is tempting to believe that we can achieve generational change if we only adopted a single weird trick, history teaches us that crime control takes investments in better training for police, investments in better investigative techniques and technologies, and investments in human capital, especially in our most disadvantaged communities.

Despite some challenging times created by the COVID-19 pandemic, New York remains a dynamic, vibrant and incredibly well-resourced city that has many advantages that its less affluent counterparts do not have. No one knows whether and how long it will take for violence to return to its pre-pandemic levels. But NYC is as good a bet as any for a speedy return to normalcy. The same cannot be said for cities where homicides have reached new highs in the post-pandemic period. Portland, which experienced 36 homicides in 2019, set a new homicide record in 2022 with 101. Philadelphia, which experienced 356 homicides in 2019 set a citywide record in 2021 with 561. In those cities, the “bad old days” aren’t an unwelcome reminder of ancient history, they are already here.