According to a recent poll, nearly two in three American voters say crime will play a “major role” in deciding who they will vote for in next month’s midterm elections. Regardless of which party wins control of the U.S. House and Senate or state legislatures around the country, voters expect them to address crime. But merely offering more of the same would be unwise. Instead, federal and state lawmakers should take the opportunity to develop an evidence-based public safety plan that will protect all Americans.
American voters’ crime concerns are certainly not misguided. Despite mostly falling crime rates, the annual costs associated with crime remain staggeringly high. One estimate found that direct expenditures related to criminal victimization are roughly equal to what the U.S. spends on national defense each year.
What’s more, crime costs are inequitably distributed, with most of the burden falling on poor and minority communities. Gun assaults are estimated to reduce the life expectancy of Black Americans by more than three years, and members of families earning less than $25,000 a year are considerably more likely to fall victim to violence than those in higher-earning households. And, of course, not all crime has fallen lately. The national murder rate has spiked all over the country to levels unseen in decades. It’s reasonable for voters to expect a public policy response.
What they don’t want is more of the same. For decades, lawmakers have responded to crime by increasing penalties in the hope that the risk of severe sentences would deter would-be criminals. That strategy hasn’t been entirely ineffective; most experts agree it played some role in the U.S. crime drop over the last several decades. Still, severity-centered criminal justice has not delivered the low crime rates its advocates had anticipated. Nor has it provided public safety benefits comparable to the substantial costs of mass incarceration. If crime control is the goal, we can do much better.
Strong evidence shows that a minimal risk of severe punishment will not deter most criminals, but a significant risk of receiving even a modest punishment will. Incorporating this knowledge into U.S. criminal justice policy is paramount. If we want to maximize deterrence, we shouldn’t design criminal justice policy around harsh penalties, but around the credible threat that the likelihood of being caught and punished for criminal behavior is very high. In practice, this includes ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources to maintain sufficient staff levels, as well as the resources to investigate crimes properly. It could also include expanding DNA databases, increasing the number of police-monitored cameras in public places, and using DNA to solve property crimes.
A public safety-centered policy agenda would abandon the current strategy of imposing draconian sentences on a small fraction of offenders. It would commit to building an accountability infrastructure with the capacity to effectively supervise a much larger set of offenders using swift, certain, and fair sanctions. This means lawmakers should expand HOPE-style probation and 24/7 Sobriety programs. The federal government and states should commit resources toward hiring more probation and parole officers to reduce caseloads and expanding court capacity to adjudicate cases more quickly.
No credible criminal justice policy agenda would ignore the need for enforcement or punishment, but a comprehensive approach would also recognize the crime control value of non-enforcement strategies. For example, improving the physical environment of high-crime and high-poverty neighborhoods has demonstrably reduced crime and violence. Summer youth employment programs have also been shown to reduce violent crime, as have programs that teach young people how to slow down and reflect before they act. Expanding access to substance abuse treatment is also a cost-effective approach to reducing crime.
That voters are deeply concerned about crime is an unambiguous indictment of the status quo. The American public is dissatisfied with the criminal justice system’s ability to keep people safe, and they expect more from their elected officials. It is also an opportunity. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming election, lawmakers should prioritize transforming and improving criminal justice policy with a plan that will provide Americans with tangible and lasting protection from crime.