It’s time for Democrats to propose a new crime bill.
No, not one like the original 1994 crime bill, famously spearheaded by President Joe Biden when he was a senator. While the role that piece of legislation played in fueling mass incarceration has often been exaggerated, its emphasis on building new prisons and nudging states to adopt harsher criminal penalties effectively doubled down on America’s unnecessarily punitive approach to justice and public safety.
Democrats don’t want to—and shouldn’t—do that. Instead, the party should cue up a more enlightened sequel full of popular ideas that will make communities safer without resorting to simply locking more Americans up. Think summer jobs for teens. Think funding for drug rehab centers. And yes, maybe think about more money for better-trained police.
The reasons why Democrats ought to act should be obvious to anybody who has been reading the news lately. After spiking to a height not seen in decades during 2020, America’s murder rate has continued to rise. The problem should not be exaggerated: While homicides are up, overall crime is not, and the pace of killings is still far below the crisis levels of the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s also possible we are living through the unruly aftereffects of the coronavirus crisis that will fade as the country gets back to normal. But lives are being lost while violence traumatizes families and whole communities where the sense of public safety is collapsing, especially poorer Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, where shootings are concentrated. In some cities, like Washington, the uptick is an acceleration of trends that began before COVID, suggesting the new climate of violence might linger. It makes moral sense to take federal action.
And it makes political sense, since there are signs that voters are becoming worried about the issue. For instance, the share of adults who believe that crime is a “very serious” problem is now at a 20-year high, according to a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll. This isn’t simply a panic among Trump-voting conservatives: This week in New York City, Brooklyn Borough President and former police officer Eric Adams sewed up the Democratic nomination for mayor after campaigning hard on public safety, which residents said was their No. 1 issue.
It is unclear exactly how much of a political liability the homicide wave presents for national Democrats. The Washington Post–ABC poll found that Biden’s approval rating on crime was underwater, with 38 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving. But according to Gallup, only 3 percent of Americans believe that crime is the most important issue facing the country. While there have been endless debates about whether activists’ calls to “defund the police” after the George Floyd protests hurt Democrats in 2020, Republican attempts to bludgeon them over the slogan don’t seem to have worked well in a recent special election for the House. What’s more, given a choice between Democrats and Republicans, voters seem just about equally divided over which party would handle crime better, in line with the country’s overall level of polarization.
But while crime might not be an immediate threat for the Democrats, it could become more of a problem if homicides continue to drift up. As New York’s Eric Levitz wrote in a great recent piece, such a rise would not just be a danger for the White House or congressional Democrats, but progressives and leftists as a whole, “since frightened electorates are often reactionary ones.”
So far, Biden’s response has been a bit underwhelming. His philosophy is very clear and sensible given the politics of the moment: Instead of diverting money away from law enforcement and toward social programs that address the root causes of crime, as many progressives have advocated, he thinks we should just spend more money on both. But the execution hasn’t left much of an impression. Last month, the president announced a new anti-crime strategy, and aside from steps by law enforcement agencies aimed at cracking down on illegal gun sales, it mostly consisted of voluntary proposals for states to use some of their COVID relief funds to cover things like summer jobs for teens and more police, or small pots of administrative spending like, for instance, $89 million for “youth workforce development.“
Again, many of Biden’s ideas are good on the merits but lack oomph because they’re essentially suggestions. An actual crime bill that crystalized the Democratic approach to this issue and explicitly funded it would be more effective both substantively and in terms of messaging. People know infrastructure is a top priority for Joe Biden, because he’s actually trying to pass a bill paying for more of it. Crime? At the moment, not so much.
If the only way to appease voters on this issue was to resort back to the old “tough on crime” framework, there would be good reason to be wary of tackling it. But as my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley pointed out Wednesday, Americans actually seem to agree with progressives that the best way to deal with crime right now is to address many of the underlying social problems that fuel it. According to the Washington Post–ABC poll, 75 percent Americans believe that “increasing funding for economic opportunities in poor areas” would reduce violence, compared with 55 percent who say the same about increasing police funding. This seems like an excellent opportunity to give voters what they want—especially since there is strong empirical evidence that many of the supposedly touchy-feely anti-crime ideas that progressives advocate like youth jobs and urban infrastructure improvements can actually have an immediate impact on crime rates.
What exactly would the bill look like? Unfortunately, regulatory gun control measures are probably out, because the Senate is still cursed with the filibuster. But in keeping with Biden’s “why not both?“ approach, Democrats could put together a spending bill, passable on a party-line vote as part of a budget reconciliation package, that combines nonpolice violence-reductions methods that progressives love—John Jay’s College of Criminal Justice produced a long list of approaches last year—with some more traditional law enforcement spending favored by moderates who want nothing more than to show they aren’t interested in defunding the police. Here are a few things it could contain. Most of them would be worthwhile even if they didn’t cut crime, but the evidence also suggests they are potentially powerful public safety tools.
1. Money for Summer Jobs
Young men in their late teens are especially prone to committing violent felonies, so it’s common sense that providing them with summer jobs that keep them out of trouble, help them support their families, and perhaps teach some life skills would help reduce crime. What’s startling is just how dramatic some studies have suggested the impact can be. In 2012, a group of researchers led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Sara Heller conducted an experiment in which they randomly assigned more than 1,600 disadvantaged Chicago teenagers to summer job programs. Within a year, it led to a 45 percent decline in violent arrests among those offered a spot. An observational study of New York’s summer youth employment program found that, for those who took part, it reduced the chance of being arrested for a felony that summer by 23 percent.
2. Money for Drug Rehab
Drug addiction and crime are tightly connected in the United States, and improving treatment for the former would also certainly help combat the latter. Decades of research suggest that substance users who receive treatment are substantially less likely to engage in criminal activity. But as Texas A&M University economist Jennifer Doleac explained a couple of years back, more recent studies have finally shown that “increasing access to treatment makes the entire community better off” by reducing overall levels of violence and property crime.
A 2016 paper found that opening additional drug treatment facilities was an incredibly cost-effective way to reduce local crime, including homicides: It calculated that for every $1 in new spending, counties saved around $4 in crime-related expenses. Meanwhile, at least two papers have found that expanding Medicaid, which pays for both drug and mental health treatment, to more low-income adults reduced reports of crimes ranging from murder to assault to robbery.
3. Money for Streetlights
Can infrastructure spending combat crime? The experts say yes. Politicians and urban planners have long assumed that keeping streets well lit was an easy way to reduce crime and keep residents safe. And while studies by criminologists have sometimes disagreed, a landmark experiment conducted in New York City during 2016 concluded that the conventional wisdom was in fact right. The researchers—from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the University of Oregon, and University of Pennsylvania—placed lighting towers at or around 40 randomly assigned public housing projects. They found that, after taking into account illegal activity that simply moved elsewhere, the nighttime brights cut index crimes by at least 36 percent. Spending money to illuminate dimly lit urban streets and alleys might well save lives.
4. Money for Social Workers
Ever since the George Floyd protests last year, sending social workers instead of police to deal with 911 calls for mental health emergencies and other distress situations that don’t involve crime has become one of the more popular ideas among criminal justice reformers. Eugene, Oregon, has run a version of such a program for decades, called CAHOOTS, and other cities have been adopting the concept. (Denver has been giving it a well-received trial run). The idea is to try and give people in distress the mental health help or whatever other assistance they need in situations where a police officer without the proper training might otherwise escalate with deadly results, or needlessly arrest someone in crisis. On its face, this doesn’t strictly seem like a crime reduction strategy. But the public seems to think it is. According to the Washington Post–ABC poll, 65 percent Americans also seem to think it would reduce violence. So why not throw funding into a crime bill? Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen and California Rep. Karen Bass have even written up a piece of legislation that would work.
5. Money for Violence Interruptors
Speaking of alternatives to traditional policing, Congress could also provide more funding specifically for violence interruptor programs, made famous by a 2011 documentary, where nonprofit workers, often including ex–gang members, act as mediators to diffuse disputes before they turn deadly. The efforts have been shown to reduce shootings and homicides in cities including New York, Chicago, and Baltimore. As part of its crime-prevention plan, the Biden administration is already working with 15 cities that have pledged to spend some money on so-called community violence interventions along these lines, but earmarking more federal cash for the initiatives could give them a longer runway to grow.
6. Money for ATF
Congress is not going to pass new gun control measures. But it could at least properly fund the agency responsible for implementing what meager regulations we have. Thanks to years of aggressive lobbying by the National Rifle Association, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has been rendered into a financially crippled shell that is literally banned from digitizing gun records, forcing its staff to track guns by combing through paper records. More money would help ATF do its job properly. Biden has asked for the funding. Congress should provide it.
7. Money for More and Better Police
Obviously, this last suggestion will rub some progressives the wrong way. But the bottom line is that very few Americans actually favor the idea of literally defunding the police, or scaling back their presence in communities. And contra the claims of activists, the up-to-date academic evidence consistently shows that policing does reduce crime, not necessarily because they are brilliant at solving it, but because people are less likely to commit a shooting or car jacking if there’s an officer 20 feet away. As the progressive Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey has written, “One of the most robust, most uncomfortable findings in criminology is that putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime.”
Aside from being a potentially effective way to reduce crime, police spending is also obviously very popular with mainstream Democrats. That group includes Joe Biden, who during the presidential campaign proposed increasing funding for the old Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grant program, which was created as part of the 1994 crime bill to help put 100,000 new officers on the street. But progressives don’t necessarily have to treat police funding as a sacrifice if they attach strict requirements that require departments to update some of their wildly insufficient and outdated training that turns police into hair-trigger gunmen. We could hire more officers, and fewer warriors.