Editor’s Note: The following is an adaptation of a talk delivered by the author at a Manhattan Institute event on July 27.
My new book, Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most, is not about me. It’s first and foremost about the far too many victims of the sorts of injustices that inspired the title—injustices like the 2019 murder of a young, unarmed Chicago mother allegedly shot by a parolee with nine prior felony convictions (including for second-degree murder); like the little boy forced to run for his life in that same city this summer, backpack in tow, as he dodged bullets meant for the group of young men he just happened to be walking past at the time; like the young woman who police say was stabbed to death in her Lower East Side apartment earlier this year by a homeless career criminal with not one, not two, but three open cases; and like the incredibly strong young woman robbed of a husband (Detective Jason Rivera) many of us watched her eulogize after he and his partner, Wilbert Mora, were murdered by a repeat offender out on probation. I wrote this book largely because I was tired of reading stories about heinous crimes carried out by offenders who had no business being out on the street—stories the data make clear are not outliers—and I wanted to do something about it.
That desire only grew as I watched 2020 unfold. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the unrest and political grandstanding that followed, politicians and activists pushed policies aimed at systematically lowering the transaction costs of crime (by making prosecutions and substantial punishments less likely) and raising the transaction costs of law enforcement (by placing new restrictions on police discretion and limiting the resources at their disposal). According to the New York Times, more than 30 states collectively passed more than 140 police reform bills in the year following George Floyd’s death. This represented an unprecedented acceleration of a trend that had been slowly taking shape since at least 2010, and I believed it was going to do real damage to public safety, particularly in the communities that reformers said they wanted to help— hence the book’s subtitle.
I was unsurprised when, in 2020, homicides spiked 30 percent across the U.S. (the largest one-year increase in generations). And I remained unsurprised by the fact that between 2020 and 2021, more than a dozen cities set all-time records for homicides, and more than a dozen more flirted with their 1990s peaks.
The effects of serious violent crime are not evenly distributed. Criminal violence has long been both geographically and demographically hyper-concentrated. In New York, about 3.5 percent of street segments see about 50 percent of the city’s violent crime; and every year for well over a decade, a minimum of 95 percent of shooting victims are either black or Hispanic (the vast majority of them male). Uncomfortable as it may make some people, you’ll see similar disparities in the statistics of shooting suspects. Nationally, black males constitute between 6 and 7 percent of the population but are murdered at a rate ten times that of their white counterparts. And homicides are tightly clustered in a relative handful of neighborhoods in and around American cities. For example, in 2019, the national murder rate was five per 100,000. In the ten most dangerous Chicago neighborhoods, which are 95.7 percent black or Latino, the 2019 homicide rate was a whopping 61.7 per 100,000. As high as that number is, it actually understates how dangerous some of those neighborhoods actually are. West Garfield Park, for example, had a 2019 murder rate of 131 per 100,000.
My book highlights data like these for two reasons. First, a thorough understanding of how violence is (and has long been) concentrated helps us understand exactly who it is that will suffer the most should a particular policy program diminish public safety, and, by extension, who it is that will gain the most should a particular policy program enhance public safety.
Second, the reality of crime concentration can help contextualize some of the disparities in enforcement statistics that we hear so much about—disparities often seized upon to make the cases for mass decarceration and depolicing as a means of pursuing racial equity. If the most serious crimes are occurring in very small slices of our cities, and affecting particular demographic groups more than others, then it is entirely reasonable for enforcement resources to be disproportionately deployed to these areas. Disparities would naturally arise from that uneven distribution of law-enforcement resources. In other words, if we accept as legitimate the decision to police neighborhoods where victimization rates are highest, we must also accept as legitimate that police are going to interact disproportionately with the people spending time in those neighborhoods.
To focus on the disparate rate of interactions in a vacuum is to ignore important context that, when accounted for, undermines the assertion that enforcement disparities are driven exclusively by racial animus. Studies of racial disparities in incarceration show that, when controlling for the type and severity of the crime committed, as well as for the age and criminal histories of the offenders in question, the racial disparities in sentencing shrink substantially. That leads us to the same conclusion drawn by the National Academies of Sciences in a 2014 meta-analysis of the literature on disparities in incarceration, which I’ll quote verbatim:
Racial bias and discrimination are not the primary causes of disparities in sentencing decisions or rates of imprisonment. . . . Overall, when statistical controls are used to take account of offense characteristics, prior criminal records, and personal characteristics, black defendants are on average sentenced somewhat but not substantially more severely than whites.
Contextualizing the data that inform our criminal-justice debate is a major theme of this book. Placing data in their proper context often blunts the rhetorical impact of some of the harshest critiques of American criminal justice. Two prominent examples of this include the charges that America has a mass-incarceration problem and that America has a police-violence problem.
Start with mass incarceration. A common lament is that the U.S. houses just 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. Another is that the U.S. has an incarceration rate significantly higher than that of other developed democracies. But much of this can be attributed to the simple, sad fact that the U.S. is home to many more pockets of highly concentrated criminal violence—violence of the sort that would result in lengthy prison terms even in the countries we’re so often unfavorably compared with.
Consider some alternative international comparisons. In 2018, Germany, England, and Wales, with a combined population of 142.2 million people, experienced approximately 3,200 homicides. That same year, just a few neighborhoods, with a combined population of just over 472,000, in just four American cities—Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore—saw 336 homicides. A handful of neighborhoods saw more than 10 percent of the homicides experienced in three countries, despite housing less than 0.5 percent of those countries’ combined population. Meantime, Germany sentences a higher percentage of its convicted murderers to life in prison than the U.S. does. And in the U.K., the mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession is five years, an offense regularly met with probation in American cities such as New York. America’s comparatively higher incarceration rate is not primarily a function of a more punitive approach to crime.
What about police violence? Thankfully, it’s become far less common over the last few decades. In fact, it’s not very common at all—not that you’d know it from the critiques of law enforcement amplified in legacy media outlets. If you’re just a casual consumer of the media’s coverage of police, you’ll see a hyperfocus on statistically rare but highly salient anecdotes of alleged police misconduct, as well as data on police use of force that are presented in the least favorable light possible.
Sometimes the injustice of a particular police action is plain to even the well-trained eye, as it was in the case of George Floyd. But police use force somewhere in the range of 1 percent of all arrests and fire their guns in about 0.03 percent of all arrests. In one study of over 1 million calls for service across three police departments—calls that resulted in more than 114,000 arrests—officers used physical force in less than 1 percent of arrests. The entire data set included just one fatal police shooting. In 98 percent of the cases in which force was used, the suspects sustained no or mild injury.
I am not arguing that the criminal-justice system is perfect; that America’s prison and jail populations don’t contain some people whose incarceration does not serve a legitimate penological end; that police don’t make mistakes or abuse their power; or that when cops do mess up, that the mechanisms meant to ensure accountability are batting 1.000. But the fact that the institutions tasked with providing for public safety aren’t perfect does not justify the sorts of radical reorganizations or “reimaginings” being proposed today in the name of equity.
Calls for mass decarceration and depolicing must be forcefully resisted—not out of antipathy for criminal offenders, but out of a deep and sincere empathy for the communities that those offenders harm. Such resistance begins with understanding precisely what it is that the advocates of this misguided program get wrong, and who they’ll hurt most if they get their way. Only then can we bring true justice to the communities suffering under the weight of America’s violent crime problem.