Leaders at all levels of government should avoid responding to rising crime rates with policies that have been tried in the past and failed, such as expanding the use of pretrial detention or pursuing unnecessarily punitive sentencing practices. There is scant evidence that these initiatives would succeed. And research consistently shows that long prison sentences, for example, can be counterproductive and that the collateral effects of incarceration can be catastrophic.
This makes it particularly important for policymakers to understand the availability of, and strong support for, alternative strategies to reduce crime and violence in both the short and long term. This section concludes our analysis by reviewing the evidence for some promising solutions. This is not an exhaustive list. Rather, it focuses on two of the serious public safety challenges of our time.
Reducing gun violence
America’s uniquely destructive relationship with guns has fueled violence of all kinds, from gang murders to—as recent events have painfully demonstrated—school shootings and racial terrorism against black and Asian people. A decade-long campaign of deregulation has made gun-carrying far more common, while making it harder to study, much less ban or stem the flow of firearms.
Unfortunately, in a recent decision, the Supreme Court further undermined the ability of states to regulate the carrying of guns within their borders, endangering public safety and emphasizing the need for local decisions in addition to state and federal regulations.
Despite this decision, policymakers must seek ways to both stop the illegal arms trade and limit the legal transfer of arms to people who pose a danger to themselves and others. For example, some states have passed laws limiting gun purchases to one per month. When implemented in Virginia, the policy appeared to reduce out-of-state gun trafficking. States could also consider banning the sale of firearms to young people or implementing “red flag” laws that provide a civil procedure to confiscate dangerous weapons from a person believed to be a threat to public safety.
Local efforts will matter, but identifying smart, scalable solutions can be challenging. Some jurisdictions have pursued gun buyback programs. In New York, for example, prosecutors cooperated with police and local institutions, including churches, to trade prepaid gift cards for firearms, no questions asked. Yet these programs serve only as a brake on the millions of guns sold in the United States in a given year. Their effects on gun violence appear to be minimal (although they may promote other community goals). As a result, they are not a substitute for broader, more concerted action.
Policymakers should also consider the promise of community-based violence intervention initiatives—programs that work at the neighborhood level, are run by people with experience in those communities, and work directly with high-risk individuals to steer them away from violence. These programs have begun to attract the attention of politicians and need ongoing support from partners in government to succeed.
CVIs can take many forms and work best when tailored to the needs of their communities. Some follow the Cure Violence model, in which outreach workers drawn from the community “interrupt” and de-escalate potentially violent encounters. Others focus on providing trauma counseling or economic support. READI Chicago, for example, addresses the specific needs of Chicago’s violence-affected neighborhoods by identifying people at high risk for violence and offering them opportunities for paid employment, support services, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
A growing body of evidence supports this work. Violence treatment programs in New York City, for example, reduced violent injuries in two high-risk neighborhoods. And READI, which works with people in greatest risk of participating in violence, may have reduced arrests for shootings and murders—although the researchers cannot state this conclusion with the preferred degree of statistical confidence and therefore recommend caution in interpreting their findings. Follow-up studies can help identify ways to improve the program.
Of course, CVIs can be difficult to implement and even more difficult to reproduce. Leaders in the field stress that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A CVI that successfully reduces violence in one jurisdiction may fail in another for a variety of reasons, including a simple mismatch between programming and community needs. Bribery from local government and other criminal justice stakeholders is also vital, as is stable long-term funding. Apart from implementation challenges, this high variability makes CVIs vulnerable to criticism.
Such criticism should not deter innovation at a time when creative solutions are desperately needed. Fortunately, support for CVI appears to be growing at all levels of government. Policymakers should aim to ensure stable, not one-off, funding so that organizations can plan their budgets around it. Local authorities should also explore how they can be an effective CVI partner.
Reinvest in communities and social services
Saving lives must be a priority now, but it would be a mistake for policymakers to ignore solutions that address the broader, ongoing social and economic needs of poor communities and communities of color—especially given that these are the same communities that have borne the brunt of recent increases in violence and have struggled with safety for years. Reinvestment efforts aimed at building healthy, sustainable communities may not yield immediate results. But they are critical to the building’s long-term safety.
At the state and national policy level, social programs designed to reduce poverty can be part of this solution, as they have been shown to reduce crime and incarceration. Studies show that Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which increased access to health insurance for lower-income people, reduced arrest rates as well as recidivism among people who had been incarcerated multiple times. (In contrast, limiting benefits such as disability income appears to have increased crime and incarceration.) And pandemic-era social policies, such as expanding the child tax credit, have only served to highlight the harmful effects of poverty and disability. of social costs to reduce it. Policymakers can build on this solid foundation of research—and in the process, can help reverse some of the socioeconomic damage caused by mass incarceration.
Addressing the deep structural problems that make some communities more vulnerable to violence is a generational project. Neither solution will reverse decades of disinvestment. However, some initiatives can now be taken to start the process. For example, summer youth employment programs (SYEPs) have been shown to reduce crime, whether by providing much-needed income or creating structure and mentoring for youth during their time out of school. Generally funded by city governments in partnership with local businesses, SYEPs provide young people with paid jobs in the public, private and non-profit sectors.
Versions of these programs can be found in at least 27 of the top 30 cities. However, SYEPs rarely serve everyone who could benefit from them. The programs also faced difficulties during the pandemic. In Boston, for example, a limited number of vacancies were offered by lottery; only 28 per cent of over 4,200 young people looking to secure a position have done so.
Increased funding for these and similar programs should be part of every elected official’s agenda. Some cities have already taken steps to strengthen local SYEPs. New York announced earlier this year that it was expanding the city’s program from 75,000 to 90,000 participants. SYEPs can provide young people with jobs, structure and financial support at a difficult time, while building safer communities.
Finally, research also shows that affordable health care reduces the likelihood that people will enter the criminal justice system. It also reduces relapses. Recent studies have found that access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems appears to reduce rates of both violent and property crime. Of course, treatment services—and especially mental health care—must also be accessible to be effective. Cost barriers may be part of the reason for the persistent gap between mental health needs and care. The problem is particularly acute for people returning to their communities from incarceration, as they are likely to leave prison with at least one chronic health condition. These disparities should be addressed, at a minimum, through programs and policies that connect people leaving prison with health care.