Recently released FBI crime statistics show some cities have seen homicides rise. In response, federal, and some state and local, officials have called for a “tough on crime” approach that research shows will only make our communities less safe and result in more people of color incarcerated.
Let’s be clear: any increase in violence is a matter of serious concern, and even one life lost is one life too many. But we need to put these numbers in context.
The 2017 FBI crime statistics show Americans, as a whole, are safer today than any time in the last half century. The data also show there still are communities in this country — including particular neighborhoods in Baltimore — that face serious public safety challenges.
After reaching a near all-time low in homicides, Baltimore City saw a significant increase in the number of homicides in 2015, rising from 211 a year earlier to 344. in 2016, the number of homicides in Baltimore dropped to 318. The latest figures for 2017 show homicides being slightly higher than was measured at this time in 2016.
What hasn’t changed is who is most directly impacted by these somber figures: Homicide victims are disproportionately African American, young and low income — the same demographic profile of our prison and jail population. Put another way, if “mass incarceration” was the solution to violent crime, some of the most challenged Baltimore neighborhoods would be among the safest, rather than having comparatively higher crime rates than other Baltimore communities.
In response to the violence in Baltimore, Gov. Larry Hogan and some other Maryland elected officials have called for more mandatory minimums and longer prison sentences. Unfortunately, they seem to be taking a play directly from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ playbook of the failed strategies from the 1990s, which did little to improve public safety and instead created the mass incarceration challenges we see today.
Research on long sentences, mandatory minimums and transferring youth to adult court shows these policies do not work to make communities safer. In fact, it was research like this that led Governor Hogan and bipartisan stakeholders to support and pass into law last year the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) — legislation that reduced sentence lengths, targeted treatment dollars to people whose crimes relate to addiction, and gave individuals more opportunities to move past their brush with the law.
Governor Hogan’s recent get-tough proposal for a “truth in sentencing” law would significantly undermine the JRA and his past support for it: “Taking a tough stance on crime isn't just about incarceration,” Governor Hogan said at the time. “In order to achieve lasting results in our criminal justice system, we must strike a balance and explore better, smarter options that reduce recidivism and help those who have served their time get back on their feet.”
At a recent legislative hearing in Annapolis on Baltimore’s crime challenges, much of the discussion was about finding more money to support prevention and intervention approaches outside the justice system to reduce crime. Few policymakers were calling for the tougher sentences espoused by the governor, and there was more support for deeper investments in helping individuals get the housing, treatment, jobs and support they need to move beyond crime. Unfortunately, these types of approaches have been overshadowed by our multi-billion dollar investment in policing and corrections.
Maryland spends more than a billion dollars on its prison system. In sharp contrast, Maryland and Baltimore City policymakers were scrambling last year to find approximately a million dollars to continue the Safe Streets program, in which community workers are paid to help de-escalate conflicts and provide services to those who are at-risk of committing crimes, as a way to help stop the cycle of violence. Safe Streets is only active in four Baltimore neighborhoods, despite being associated with reduced shootings and killings.
Rather than simply echo President Trump’s and Jeff Sessions’ “get tough” policies, Governor Hogan should double down on funding smart-on-crime approaches that would actually improve public safety. The Governor should heed his own words and “explore better, smarter options” that research shows will reduce crime and help make our communities safer.
Jeremy Kittredge (email@example.com) is the research and policy associate with the Justice Policy Institute. Keith Wallington (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the state based strategist with the Justice Policy Institute.