By Michael Boggs and Gordon Ramsay
Any indication our neighborhoods may be becoming less safe will always be met with anxiety. The FBI’s annual report on crime, released early last week, will fairly be met with some concern that our collective effort to keep citizens safe is going in the wrong direction.
According to the FBI, the violent crime rate in the United States remains near half-century lows, but increased nationally between 2015 and 2016, a continuation of increases seen in last year’s report. While any increase in violent crime is cause for alarm, a detailed look at the data reveals that a large percentage of the increases are concentrated in certain neighborhoods around the country, reflecting local factors. Combatting these factors will require locally tailored crime prevention strategies supported by research.
As two leaders on the front lines of our respective state and city’s criminal justice systems, we’ve pursued strategies to hold the people who committed crimes accountable and witnessed first-hand the harm that these crimes can cause communities. We also know how vital it is to look beyond the headlines and peel back the layers of data that mask what’s really happening in each state and the communities within those states in order to determine effective solutions to ensure the people in those jurisdictions remain safe.
For instance, from 2014 to 2016, Kansas saw its violent crime rate increase by 9 percent. What that number doesn’t show is that the state also saw a 7-percent decline in rape. During the same period, Georgia’s statewide violent crime rate increased 5 percent, but that hides the fact that its most populous city, Atlanta, saw its violent crime rate actually drop by 12 percent.
Other locations across the country are experiencing very different trends. In some communities, homicide is up, pushing the overall homicide rate to increase by 8.6 percent. Other crime categories have reached historic lows. National property crime rates, for example, were last this low in 1966, and national violent crime rates have been lower than the current rate only five times since 1971.
It’s important to take a comprehensive look at all crime trends, specific subsets of crime categories, historical context, and geographic characteristics of local jurisdictions, such as urban and rural. Additionally, poverty rates, illegal drug use and other societal issues should be examined to help understand larger issues leading to crime.
The complexity of local crime trends means that no one number can guide our public safety strategies. States and communities should collaborate with community members and stakeholder organizations when reviewing data and deciding on how best to allocate resources and develop public safety improvement and crime prevention strategies. The good news is that states that are targeting that type of approach are already seeing results.
According to a recent brief from The Council of State Governments Justice Center, South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and several other states have seen recidivism rates fall significantly, meaning fewer people are leaving prison and committing new crimes.
The FBI crime report should prompt a serious dialogue among state and local leaders about the differing challenges they face in combatting the pockets of persistent violence around the country. How can communities make a positive impact on violent crime trends while maintaining the progress being made on property crime in an era of tightening budgets? How can they best address the significant impacts opioids and mental health issues are having on our criminal justice systems?
This type of deep data analysis at the local level is the only way to ensure unique challenges are met with appropriate solutions, especially when state and local trends can be at odds with one another, both state by state and community by community.
This is why law enforcement leaders, corrections administrators, health professionals and legislators from all 50 states are convening in Washington D.C. this November for the 50-State Summit on Public Safety. The state teams will analyze statewide crime, corrections, and behavioral health trends, evaluate policy approaches to improving public safety and share proven practices and policies that are making a difference.
In that spirit, towns, counties and cities must take the same initiative to closely examine indicators like arrest rates and the effectiveness of probation and parole programs to key aspects of the local system, such as addressing crime at the moment of impact all the way through someone’s eventual release from prison or jail, determining whether victims are receiving restitution, and understanding how courts are using detailed assessments to make appropriate decisions for each individual.
The new FBI crime numbers should represent the beginning of a locally driven conversation about data-driven solutions, not the end. Federal policymakers should stand with states and localities as they dig into their crime data to make sure that funding, programs and policies are focused on the public safety issues most relevant to their unique communities.
Michael Boggs is a Georgia Supreme Court Justice and Co-Chair of the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council. Gordon Ramsay is the Chief of the Wichita Police Department. They both serve on The Council of State Governments Justice Center Board of Directors.