Criminal Justice Experts, DOJ Spar Over Who’s to Thank for Crime Decreases in 2017


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Violent crimes dipped in the first year of the Trump administration, but that coincides with state and local strategies focused on community policing and criminal justice reforms.

State and local government advocates are crediting community policing and criminal justice reforms, not “tough-on-crime” tactics, for last year’s very slight drop in violent crimes and the continued downward trend in property crimes.

Violent crimes in 2017 decreased .2 percent after two consecutive years of increases, while property crimes fell 3 percent compared to 2016.

The data released Monday comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which collects reports from 16,655 out of 18,547 local law enforcement agencies.

“There have been a great number of innovative programs created across the country to address the needs of our communities, such as mental health and drug addiction programs,” said David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, on a telebriefing. “These programs have proven successful and have excellent numbers, however as we move forward there needs to be a focus on violence.”

A growing number of states are distinguishing between serious violent offenses and lower-level crimes, said Amanda Essex, senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One way is by modifying punishments for offenses like drug possession and dealing to target high-level dealers, while offering help to people with substance-abuse disorders.

“States are working to ensure that the most dangerous offenders are incarcerated, while utilizing community-based alternatives for nonviolent and low-level offenders,” Essex said. “The information gleaned from crime statistics can be used, in combination with research on what works to reduce recidivism, to help lawmakers determine where state resources are best allocated.”

The U.S. Department of Justice pointed out that, after “historic increases” in violent crime, the rate began to decline in the first year of the Trump administration. The FBI’s UCR program tracks violent crimes like armed robbery, rape and murder, along with property crimes like theft and burglary.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the signs were “encouraging.”

“While we have made progress, violent crime and drug trafficking continue to plague our communities and destroy the lives of innocent, law-abiding Americans,” Sessions said. “Under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice has restored common sense criminal charging and sentencing policies, surged resources to jurisdictions facing some of the highest levels of violence and drug abuse, targeted enforcement efforts against the most violent offenders, and developed innovative approaches to address pervasive crime problems.”

But some criminal justice experts said this was precisely the wrong takeaway from the FBI data.

Emily Mooney, a criminal justice policy associate at the R Street Institute, said the report “dispels the myth that we’re in the midst of a new crime wave,” when we are in fact “living in one of the safest times in our nation’s history.” That’s in spite of slight increases in measures like aggravated assault, which saw a 1 percent uptick.

She praised South Dakota, which saw property and violent crimes increase in 2016, for tackling its meth problem through criminal justice reforms aimed at addressing addiction and moving away from “tough on crime policies” with longer sentences.

Closer attention is needed to cities like Baltimore, which saw violent crimes rise 13 percent, Mooney said.

“People of different races and genders are still being treated differently when they interact with the criminal justice system,” Mooney said. “And we are seeing a new divide in the criminal justice system arising between our rural and urban communities.”

Prison admissions continue to decrease in the most populous communities, while increasing in the smallest ones, where punishments tend to be more severe, she added.

Crime rate declines coincide with community policing efforts by local law enforcement agencies, “the most effective way to decrease crime,” said Justin Lundgren, assistant chief with the Spokane, Washington Police Department.

“These FBI crime statistics point to the need for localized policy solutions driven by evidence and parsimony, not fear,” Mooney said. “Parsimony means inflicting the least harm possible, while seeking to accomplish our intended results.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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