Soft on Crime? A Debate on America’s Criminal Justice System

Are we facing a surge in crime or are threats exaggerated? Susan Chira (The Marshall Project) and Scott Jennings (CNN) debate.
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Are We Facing a Surge in Crime or Are Threats Exaggerated?

By Susan Chira, Editor-in-Chief of The Marshall Project, and Scott JenningsRepublican adviser, CNN political contributor, and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations

Are we facing a surge in crime or are threats exaggerated? Susan Chira (The Marshall Project) and Scott Jennings (CNN) debate.

The Right-Wing Narrative on Crime is at Odds With Data

By Susan Chira, Editor-in-Chief of The Marshall Project, and David Eads, Data Editor at The Marshall Project.

This campaign season, you couldn’t escape the relentless drumbeat of demagoguery about crime in America. If you believed tabloid headlines and political attack ads, people should be cowering in their homes, their lives at risk if they venture into big cities, subways, or downtowns after dark. It is undeniably true that certain kinds of crime have increased after years of stable or declining crime rates. But it is also clear when you dig into the complexities of crime rates that the level of fear whipped up among the public has far exceeded the actual risks in most places.

Take one resident of a New York City suburb who told The New York Times she wondered whether she could make it home at night from the city alive. Such sentiments were widely shared, driving several Republican victories in heavily Democratic New York and helping to flip the House of Representatives. Yet New York and its suburbs remain some of the safest large communities in the country.

Politicized Discussions of Crime Obscure the Facts

It’s possible to get wildly divergent answers about what is happening to crime depending on location, time frame, or categories of crimes. For example, in Atlanta, from 2020 to 2021, the number of murders went up by 3%, according to the Atlanta Police Department. If we extend the comparison to 2019, before the pandemic, murders have increased by 65%. Yet compared to 1990, murders in Atlanta have decreased by 32%, despite steady population growth. The city’s murder total in 2021 was also roughly the same as the annual tallies in the early 2000s.

Nationally, what we know from both FBI data reported by police and an annual federal survey that asks about 240,000 people whether they personally were victims of crime, is that violent and property crimes have both been on a steady decline since the early 1990s. Murders did increase at a troubling and dramatic rate nationwide in 2020 and have remained elevated, but murder is the least common form of violent crime. Overall, violent crime has remained roughly static since 2010, following decades of decline.

Since the 1990s, both violent and property crimes reported to the police and estimated by survey research have declined. While the violent crime rate increased slightly since the pandemic, it’s still little more than half of what it was three decades ago. It’s also unclear how long the rise in certain crimes will persist, since it coincided with the pandemic, when streets were emptier, people were under intense stress, and economic inequalities were starkly visible. 

There’s another wrinkle: huge information gaps in crime statistics. As The Marshall Project documented, in 2021 nearly 40% of police departments did not submit crime rates to the FBI, including New York City and Los Angeles, as well as most agencies in five of the country’s six most populous states. That means it’s impossible to compare FBI crime statistics by year nationwide; state results offer a clearer picture.

Public Perceptions of Crime Rates Exceed Reality

Of course, telling people that murders, while up, are not nearly as high as decades ago does not address legitimate fears about public safety and are cold comfort to those whose lives have been shattered by crime. But one additional reason people are more worried about crime now could be because of a rise in the most frightening kinds of crime: random, rare crimes like murder and carjacking. Social scientists suggest that a visible rise of certain types of crime, even if still rare, leads people to believe that all kinds of crime are increasing. The research shows that people regularly overstate the risk of becoming victims of crime, and they often mistakenly judge the safety of a neighborhood on its racial composition.

High crime rates in the 1980s and 90s led to tough-on-crime laws and skyrocketing rates of incarceration, disproportionately locking up black and brown people and propelling the United States to have among the world’s highest incarceration rates. That’s why it’s urgent to frame discussions about crime responsibly and avoid exaggerating risk when drawing up policies on public safety.

Are we facing a surge in crime or are threats exaggerated? Susan Chira (The Marshall Project) and Scott Jennings (CNN) debate.

Democratic Mishandling of Crime Has Made America Less Safe

By Scott Jennings – Republican adviser, CNN political contributor, and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations

The City of Louisville, KY—my home state’s largest metro area—started off 2023 with a bang. Ten bangs, actually. We endured 10 homicides in the first 10 days of the new year. Since starting this decade, the city has set records for its deadliest year in history. Twice. And a newly released research report showed that youth homicides—involving 15 to 24-year-olds—have tripled since 2018.

These violent crimes range from a fatal shooting of a 16-year-old waiting for the school bus to a potentially racially motivated assassination attempt of a Jewish mayoral candidate. Talk to people around here and you find caution and resistance to heading downtown after dark. That’s a stark departure from just a few years ago when Louisville’s downtown was experiencing a renaissance and is a real shame for a community with so much potential. 

Unfortunately, Louisville isn’t alone. American cities are enduring a shocking amount of high-profile and horrifying violence. For much of the last year, Americans couldn’t click on the nightly news without seeing brutality on their streets, or a mob of rowdy youths ransacking a convenience store, or major chains losing $400 million in a single year to organized retail crime. And that’s not to mention the riots that caused $2 billion in national property damage in the summer of 2020.

Soft-on-Crime Policies are Ineffective and Dangerous 

Instead of being overhyped, as the opposite viewpoint suggests, there is a lack of clear understanding of why crime is on the rise. The current crisis stems directly from the Left’s rejection of law and order and the coddling of repeat violent offenders. Republican politicians are right to draw a clear distinction between conservatives’ plan to take on violent crime and the Democrats’ determination to look the other way.

In the wake of the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad and other radical politicians chanted “Defund the Police.” Of course, they didn’t make distinctions between the abusive cops who killed George Floyd and the courageous men and women wearing badges who put their lives on the line to protect our families every day. The far-left’s demand for a catchy slogan was more important than accuracy. 

New York City officials responded to the Congresswoman from the Bronx—perhaps out of fear of her political power—and slashed the NYPD’s budget by nearly $1 billion. The next year, major crimes in the Big Apple rose by 22%. Attacks on these brave public servants have destroyed morale and left departments understaffed and ill-equipped, without the resources to carry out their vital mission.

We Must Hold Offenders Accountable

Even if officers are able to make arrests, there’s a growing obstinance against prosecuting offenders. Since 2016, George Soros and other liberal mega-donors have pumped millions into local district attorney campaigns to elect woke prosecutors who refuse to put criminals behind bars. These officials—in the name of social justice—reduce charges or seek lighter sentences, refuse to charge entire categories of crimes, and decline to prosecute violent juvenile offenders in adult court. 

Case in point—the gunman who killed three Michigan State University students and injured five others was arrested in 2019 for a felony gun charge. Had he been convicted, instead of being allowed to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor, he likely would still be in prison today and ineligible to purchase a gun in the future.

President Biden’s complete failure to secure the southern border has only poured fuel on the fire of homegrown violence. Cartels and coyotes are walking across the border, overwhelming federal agents and taking focus away from drug interdiction. Last December, the DEA seized enough fentanyl to kill every single American. Thank God they did. But we can only imagine how much of this poison is getting through and killing kids in neighborhoods across the country. 

The solution to America’s crime wave isn’t difficult, and it is exactly what Republicans campaigned on last year. Back the Blue and fund local law enforcement. Elect strong prosecutors who will enforce the law and lock up violent offenders and keep them there. Secure the border and stop giving international drug cartels free entrance into our neighborhoods. In short, upholding law and order is the Republican roadmap to making our communities safe once again.

We Mustn’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture

By Susan Chira, Editor-in-Chief of The Marshall Project, and David Eads, Data Editor at The Marshall Project.

There’s a temptation when debating crime in America to brandish counter-examples like weapons. Louisville saw murder and violent crime rise, but Dallas saw them fall. Pick your poison: it’s all because of failed policies pursued by permissive Democrats or punitive Republicans.  

Our goal at The Marshall Project is to look at crime data through a non-politicized lens since scoring partisan points does not help foster a constructive conversation about crime and the criminal justice system. Instead, we need to talk about big-picture trends that were upended by the pandemic. 

Violent crime has remained largely static since 2010, while property crime has dropped. But homicides increased in 2020 and 2021, and despite appearing to drop in 2022, have not returned to pre-pandemic norms. Violence in large cities increased the most. Politicians are capitalizing on both real and perceived public fears: Over half of Americans believe crime went up in their neighborhood, the highest levels in 30 years of polling. 

Police employment is seeing modest drops in line with drops in all government employment, while correctional officers are facing far more serious staffing shortages. Courts are flooded with low-level repeat defendants, while police are able to solve only a fraction of the most serious crimes. These trends are certain to affect crime—not just due to policing, but staffing and funding for public health, sanitation, and education. We hope to provide unbiased information so that the public can understand the challenges and requirements of ensuring public safety and justice.

Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

By Scott Jennings – Republican adviser, CNN political contributor, and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations

While it is encouraging Dallas has seen a reduction in violent crime, it provides little comfort to the people of Louisville being targeted by criminals. All public policy issues must be viewed through a “politicized-lens” because that’s how we solve problems in our country—through debate, elections, and the policies that flow from the people we entrust with public office.

Political statements have consequences and the demonization of police officers by American progressives has left the profession in shambles. Speaking to CBS News last year amidst his department facing 150 vacancies, Tulsa police chief Wendell Franklin was diplomatic but clear: “There is, there was, a lot of scrutiny placed upon law enforcement. And I think that soured a lot of interested people that wanted to go into the profession. They have made a detour, and they’ve gone and done something else.” 

It wasn’t sanitation workers or bureaucrats who burst through the door in Nashville last week to stop a radicalized and mentally ill school shooter from killing even more kids and educators. It was a group of heroic cops who exemplified what it means to truly “protect and serve.” God bless them. We need as many heroes as we can get these days.

If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can also read more from our Culture Wars series here

Susan Chira
Editor-in-Chief of The Marshall Project, with colleagues David Eads, Weihua Li, and Jamiles Lartey

Susan Chira is editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. Ms. Chira worked for The New York Times from 1981 to 2019 as a reporter and editor, including posts as foreign editor and deputy executive editor, overseeing daily news coverage across The Times. As senior correspondent on gender issues, she was a member of the team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment.

Scott Jennings 1 min e1662937607545
Scott Jennings
Republican adviser, CNN political contributor, and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations

Scott Jennings is a Republican adviser, CNN political contributor, and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. He was a special assistant to President George W. Bush and a longtime political advisor to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

1 comment

Blair Christensen May 30, 2023 at 2:31 pm

The number one reason for crime was given by criminals themselves: lack of fathers. That in a landmark study done of convicts themselves in honest interviews. One can talk about political motivations and dogmatically attack the opposite party if one wishes, but the one thing that can’t be denied on either side of the aisle is that crime is a direct result of the devaluation of the nuclear family by society and especially society’s laws.

Ms. Chira can duck and dodge all she wants, but there is one party which has been pushing for the destruction of the family for nearly eighty years: Democrats. Lyndon Johnson made it famous by emphasizing a social welfare program which costs to date rival – not coincidentally IMHO – the national debt in this nation. And yet neither poverty nor crime – the hallmarks his program was supposed to eliminate – have budged downward. In the black population, we’ve seen the complete disintegration of the nuclear family where now 4 out of 5 blacks is born to a single mother. And yet we wonder why blacks are a higher percentage of criminal convictions. It has nothing to do with race and _everything_ to do with cultural background. Walter Williams and the late Thomas Sowell have been documenting the fall of the nuclear family in blacks for at least 40 years, yet they have been pilloried by Democrats and given little more than lip service by Republicans.

And lest Ms. Chira forget, it was Democrats who finally made it official and removed God from their platform, instead enshrining abortion up until birth – and sometimes afterward – as their deity.

No. Until our families are lauded and protected by culture, we will continue to degrade as a society. We’re falling off a cliff – or spiraling the porcelain if one desires an alternative figure of speech – and we’re just waiting to hit the bottom.


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