Opinion | Crime and Political Punishment

Results from Tuesday’s primaries in California suggest that crime may be a big issue in the midterm elections. In San Francisco, a progressive prosecutor was ousted in a recall vote. In Los Angeles, a businessman and former Republican who has run for mayor on the promise to be a big crime fighter made a strong showing.

It’s not hard to see why crime has moved up on the political agenda. Murders surged nationwide in 2020 and ticked up further in 2021, although we don’t really know why. Right-wingers blame Black Lives Matter, because of course they do. A more likely explanation is the stress caused by the pandemic — stress that, among other things, led to a large increase in domestic violence.

Despite the recent surge, the overall homicide rate is still well below its peak in 1991, and the geography of the political backlash doesn’t seem closely correlated with actual crime rates: San Francisco and Los Angeles both have less violent crime than, say, Houston. But rising crime is real, and voter concern is understandable.

But will the public backlash against crime lead to positive results? I wish I could be optimistic.

At the very least, we’ll need to get past some widespread misconceptions. And even then, talking about cracking down on crime is easy; actually doing something about it isn’t.

First, we need to get past the idea that crime is mainly a big-city problem — an idea that is still very much out there, even though it has long since stopped being true. Last year J.D. Vance, now the Republican nominee for senator from Ohio — and definitely in the running for one of America’s most cynical politicians — tweeted to his followers: “I have to go to New York soon, and I’m trying to figure out where to stay. I hear it’s disgusting and violent there.” I think that was sort of a joke, but one that he knew perfectly well that many of his followers wouldn’t get.

The truth, as Bloomberg’s Justin Fox recently documented, is that New York is remarkably safe, not just compared with other large U.S. cities, but also compared with small towns and rural areas. In particular, New York City has a substantially lower homicide rate than that of Ohio as a whole.

This doesn’t mean that everything is fine in the Big Apple; Eric Adams was elected mayor in part because crime has risen sharply, and he took a get-tough-on-crime stance. But in a rational world, politicians from the heartland wouldn’t be sneering at New York; they’d be looking at our biggest city, which also happens to be one of the safest places in America, and trying to figure out what it’s doing right.

Another misconception we need to get past is the idea that rising crime is all about immigration. Vance, in particular, has based his campaign largely on demagoguery about immigration, and especially about immigrant crime — demagoguery that seems to work best in places with very few immigrants: Less than 5 percent of Ohio’s population is foreign-born, compared with 38 percent in New York City.

Even if we can avoid the misconceptions, however, what can politicians actually do about crime?

It would help if we knew what caused crime to fall so much between the early 1990s and the mid-2010s — a decline, by the way, that was accompanied every step of the way by Gallup polls showing a plurality, and usually a large majority, of Americans asserting that crime was rising. But my reading is that there’s no consensus on why that decline — which took place all across the nation, in red states and blue — took place.

It would also help if there were a clear pattern to the crime wave of 2020-21. But like the earlier decline, it was pretty much universal across America; it hit states and cities run by conservative Republicans, centrists and liberal Democrats with more or less equal force.

So complaining about crime is easy, but actually bringing it down is hard; in fact, New Yorkers already seem deeply disillusioned with Adams’s efforts.

One thing that might help is better policing; the available evidence suggests that severe sentences for convicted criminals don’t do much to deter crime, but that an increased probability of being caught does. So “defund the police” was a stupid (and politically destructive) slogan; we probably need to devote more, not less, resources to law enforcement. But of course we also need the police who do their job — the story from Uvalde just keeps getting worse — and don’t abuse their position. If fear of crime is a real issue, so is minority groups’ fear of being abused by the people who are supposed to protect them, and we can’t simply trust the police to always do the right thing.

Oh, and it would help matters if criminals weren’t equipped with military-grade weapons and body armor — and no, having everyone else heavily armed isn’t the answer. New York has a low crime rate by American standards, but that’s not because it’s full of good guys with guns.

Anyway, like it or not, crime will be an issue in November. As I said, I wish I could be optimistic. But my fear is that the beneficiaries of the new focus on crime will be politicians who have nothing to offer but tough talk.

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