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What We're Reading

Greg Berman

June 27, 2023

Recent research on city life

Recent research on city life

We are back once again with our (somewhat) regular roundup of recent research and reports. Our goal here is not evaluation but rather translation and dissemination. We read and digest the source material so you don’t have to. (You’re welcome.) The usual caveats apply: We are not scholars, so we are not checking the math or judging academic rigor — just offering a quick take on studies that might be relevant to people with an interest in improving safety and the quality of urban life. As always, if you have suggestions for what to include in our next roundup, please email us at

Neighborhoods of last resort: How landlord strategies concentrate violent crime

In Criminology, Henry Gomory and Matthew Desmond examine the relationship between landlords and crime. In particular, they focus on three landlord behaviors: tenant screening, property maintenance and eviction. They hypothesize that landlords who attract reliable tenants, take care of their buildings and do not frequently evict tenants reduce crime — and that those who engage in the opposite behaviors (what they call “low-end property management”) increase criminal behavior. They also posit a cyclical relationship, where bad landlords beget crime, which in turn encourages other landlords to stop investing in their properties, which encourages further crime.

Gomory and Desmond analyze three years of property data from Milwaukee, including housing code violations, eviction proceedings and crime reports. They find that landlords who engage in low-end management increase the probability that their properties will become hot spots of crimes like assault, robbery and theft — and that landlords operating in neighborhoods with high levels of violent crime are more likely to engage in low-end property management. 

Gomory and Desmond’s findings seem to support at least part of the broken windows theory, namely that buildings that are not well maintained can help create an atmosphere where crime flourishes. The findings also raise difficult questions for policymakers: Given the economic incentives that govern their behavior, what would it take for landlords in crime-plagued neighborhoods to become good place managers? Do the inexorable realities of the profit motive make it impossible for government to influence landlords in a capitalist system?

The Bottom Line: “Taken together, these findings suggest that low-end management strategies and neighborhood crime rates mutually reinforce one another, leading to the development of neighborhoods and properties of last resort, characterized by dilapidated rentals and high crime. Property owners’ low-end management strategies concentrate crime in several ways. At the property level, poor tenant screening and property oversight increases the degree of crime at the landlords’ own properties. As violent crime rates increase, housing demand decreases further, creating a feedback loop.”

Do the inexorable realities of the profit motive make it impossible for government to influence landlords in a capitalist system?

The Effects of Youth Employment on Crime: Evidence From New York City Lotteries

In the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Judd B. Kessler, Sarah Tahamont, Alexander Gelber and Adam Isen look at the New York City Summer Youth Employment Program. From 2005 to 2008, the program provided participants — young people ages 14-21 — with 25 hours a week of minimum-wage work during the summer. Since the New York program is the largest such program in the country, the dataset ultimately included more than 163,000 young people.

Good news: The authors find that participation in summer youth employment decreased the chance that participants were arrested during that summer by 17% and decreased the chance that they were arrested for a felony during that summer by 23%. These effects were driven primarily by male participants and by the small fraction (3% of participants) who had previously been arrested. Less good news: The research team also tracked participant behavior for up to five years after the program and did not find any statistically significant impact from program involvement over the long haul. 

The Bottom Line: “The evidence suggests that the criminal justice benefits of summer jobs programs arise only — or at least primarily — among relatively disconnected youth with prior criminal justice contact.”


Efforts to Reduce Jail Populations in Philadelphia

For the Urban Institute, Evelyn F. McCoy, Paige Thompson, Travis Reginal and Natalie Lima conduct a study examining the implementation of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a MacArthur Foundation-funded jail reduction project, in Philadelphia.

Relying on an analysis by the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, the report highlights that Philadelphia reduced its average daily jail population by nearly 42% following the Safety and Justice program. The city was less successful in reducing racial disparities — the percentage of Black people in the jail population actually increased slightly.

The research team interviewed dozens of officials from different agencies who were involved in helping to implement Philadelphia’s jail reduction effort. One of the key findings will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been involved in a multi-agency partnership: Things can fall apart. According to one interviewee:

We had the initial really good success as far as the overall population reduction, to the point where they actually closed one of the county jails and things were looking really good, but it gets tiring to keep it going. And so the whole sustaining, not just finding the financial means to sustain the work, but to have the continued willingness and ability for all the different agencies to continue their level of commitment and work. And it’s just hard. And then COVID hit and then, I mean everything got harder. Everything got harder.

The Bottom Line: “Lessons learned include that it is possible to significantly reduce jail populations in large cities with comprehensive, cross-agency collaboration; that such jail population reductions do not necessarily mean racial and ethnic disparities will also decrease; that reform fatigue is a reality for long-term initiatives ... and can make it difficult for stakeholders to sustain efforts; and that meaningful community engagement is challenging and requires educating stakeholders and community members.”

Marijuana Reform: What Do the Experts Think?

For the Niskanen Center, Vital City contributors Jennifer Doleac and Anna Harvey explain the results from a Criminal Justice Expert Panel survey about marijuana reform. The panel comprises scholars from a variety of disciplines who were asked to respond to a series of statements based on the Biden administration’s recent efforts to reduce the negative consequences of marijuana convictions.

Respondents to the survey expressed strong support for the idea that pardoning those with prior federal and state convictions for marijuana possession would have “meaningful social benefits” that exceed any social costs. The support was less emphatic for the idea that moving marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a less-restrictive schedule or legalizing it at the federal level would have meaningful social benefits that exceed any social costs, but those who agreed with the idea still outnumbered those who disagreed or had no opinion. According to one survey respondent:

Schedule I is reserved for substances with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It makes zero sense for marijuana to be on that list, for other drugs to be listed in a lower Schedule (e.g., methamphetamine), and for alcohol to not be listed at all. There have been no meaningful social benefits to it being listed in Schedule I, so it should not require proof of benefits to remove it. Law enforcement could maybe even boost clearance rates of more serious crimes.

Modernize the Criminal Justice System: An Agenda for the New Congress

The politics of criminal justice these days offer a funhouse mirror version of the usual partisan dynamics. Typically, the left is pro-government and argues for greater expenditures for government agencies. In criminal justice, the roles are now reversed, with conservatives arguing for increased investment and left-wing activists seeking to “starve the beast.” 

Case in point: This recent report by Vital City contributor Charles Fain Lehman for the Manhattan Institute. Lehman sets out a five-year plan to improve the criminal justice system. The core elements include hiring 80,000 police officers, expanding funding for research, rehabilitating prisons, creating national case processing standards and upgrading data infrastructure. Total cost? An estimated $12 billion.

Refreshingly, Lehman is not arguing here for greater punitiveness. Instead, his focus is on enhancing capacity and bringing the American system up to par with international standards. In the process, he offers a strong counterargument to those who claim that we have overinvested in the criminal justice system.

The politics of criminal justice these days offer a funhouse mirror version of the usual partisan dynamics.

Lehman’s call for more spending on criminal justice research is particularly welcome. He argues that federal funding for research, evaluation and statistics has declined significantly in recent years. Lehman seeks not just to increase investment in research but to reform the grantmaking process to ensure that it is less onerous for researchers and that relevant research makes its way to the field more quickly.

The Bottom Line: “The reality is that America’s criminal justice system is in dramatic need of an upgrade. Police staffing levels have been in decline for years; prisons and jails are growing more dangerous; criminal cases spend months or even years awaiting disposition; basic crime data are not being collected, and basic research is not being funded. Policymakers have ignored this steady decay, preferring to focus on culture war issues and so-called ‘criminal justice reform.’ Meanwhile, the cost of all the crime not prevented likely runs to trillions of dollars; the time has come to take the problem seriously.”

“Not as Bad as the ’90s?”: Firearm Violence in Small, Mid-Size, and Large U.S. Cities, 2015-2021

This bracing study by Magic W. Wade, published in Homicide Studies, examines patterns of urban gun violence in more than 1,000 American cities in the years leading up to, and following, the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Wade, more than 45,000 Americans died from a fatal firearm injury in 2020, more than during any previous year on record. This spike was part of a trend that has seen gun violence increase in hundreds of cities in the years since 2015. While much of the media coverage of crime focuses on New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Wade’s research shows that 42% of all city gun homicides since 2015 have occurred in cities with populations smaller than 250,000. 

A common argument made by political partisans in recent years is that levels of violence were orders of magnitude worse in the 1990s. Much of this argument is driven by the case of New York City, where the number of homicides in 2020 (447) was a fraction of the peak reached in the 1990s (2,245). But, according to Wade, “it is highly misleading to extrapolate the experience of New York City as a standard bearer, considering that dozens of major cities shattered homicide records in 2020 and 2021 due to elevated firearm violence.” He concludes: “For too many American communities, it’s not as bad as the 1990s, it’s worse.”

While much of the media coverage of crime focuses on New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Wade’s research shows that 42% of all city gun homicides since 2015 have occurred in cities with populations smaller than 250,000.

The Bottom Line: “The worsening and widespread community gun violence trends illustrated by the data are alarming. The sheer increase in the absolute number of cities that are meeting adverse gun violence benchmarks is also illustrative of the severity of the problem. Since 2015, I find that the number of cities meeting adverse peak gun violence benchmarks has increased ... If such trends continue, there will soon be vanishingly few U.S. cities that are objectively safer than major urban centers during the notoriously violent 1980s and 1990s.”


Crossing Lines — A Change in the Leading Cause of Death among U.S. Children

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Lois K. Lee, Katherine Douglas and David Hemenway document a grim reality: Firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of injury-related death for American young people. This reflects two developments: a rising number of gun-related deaths and a declining number of deaths related to car accidents. According to the authors, “The crossing of these trend lines demonstrates how a concerted approach to injury prevention can reduce injuries and deaths — and, conversely, how a public health problem can be exacerbated in the absence of such attention.” They credit the efforts of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to reduce injuries caused by motor vehicles and bemoan the absence of a federal agency focused specifically on regulating firearms. 

The Bottom Line: “As the progress made in reducing deaths from motor vehicle crashes shows, we don’t have to accept the high rate of firearm-related deaths among U.S. children and adolescents.”

Broken Windows and Community Social Control: Evidence from a Study of Street Segments

For the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vital City contributor David Weisburd and coauthors Clair V. Uding, Joshua C. Hinkle and Kiseong Kuen drill down to look at specific street segments in Baltimore that are crime “hot spots” (defined as places in the top 3% for violence- or drug-related calls for service). The research team conducted thousands of interviews with local residents and made in-person observations to assess conditions of both physical disorder (e.g., boarded-up windows, litter, graffiti) and social disorder (e.g., loitering, drug activities, noise). Results were compared to “cold” and “cool” street segments with much lower levels of criminal behavior. Unsurprisingly, the authors find significant differences in terms of fear of crime, with the low-crime streets generally evidencing less fear than the high-crime streets.

The results contain mixed news for supporters of the broken windows theory. On the one hand, the researchers find that higher levels of social disorder (both observed and perceived) lead to significantly lower levels of collective efficacy. In other words, “social disorder was found to be a trigger for the kind of declines in community social control that [James Q.] Wilson and [George] Kelling suggest [in their “Broken Windows” article]. Social disorder on the street, as reflected by such behaviors as people fighting or arguing, or publicly selling or using drugs, is found to significantly impact collective efficacy.” 

There was, however, no such relationship between physical disorder and collective efficacy. The implication of this, according to the authors, is that the metaphor of the broken window should not be taken literally and that police should not over-rely on evidence of physical disorder when making decisions about where to target enforcement efforts.

The Bottom Line: “Our data suggest that Wilson and Kelling were correct in emphasizing the link between disorder, community social control and crime, though our data imply that social and physical disorder should not have equal weight in understanding the breakdown ... …of community social control.”