It was a short honeymoon. On January 1st, Alvin Bragg assumed the office of Manhattan district attorney. One of the new class of “progressive prosecutors” – criminal justice reformers who aim to reduce the number of people in prison – Mr. Bragg launched a spate of policy changes. Offenses like burglary and possession of certain weapons would be downgraded; other crimes like prostitution and resisting arrest would no longer be prosecuted at all. Weeks later, New York City witnessed a sudden surge in violent crime. Two police officers were killed on the job. Mr. Bragg had to announce a U-turn.
America has seen an explosion in violence since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The national murder rate increased by 29% between 2019 and 2020 – the largest single-year jump since 1905. That wiped out 20 years of progress on homicide. Data for violence in 2021 are still being collected, but the preliminary evidence suggests that homicide continued to rise, albeit at a less sharp rate. Among 22 large cities that have already reported, murders rose by 4% between 2020 and 2021.
As Americans try to make sense of it, some have blamed progressive policies and reformers like M. Bragg. These days Republicans are criticizing President Joe Biden for being soft on crime. They also see electoral rewards in attacking Democratic rhetoric to “defund the police” – as attempted unsuccessfully, in liberal cities like Austin and Los Angeles. But new evidence suggests that the actual blame may not lie with urban progressives.
To test this hypothesis, a trio of social scientists examined what happened to crime after progressive prosecutors assumed office in 35 cities and counties over a six-year period. They found no detectable effect of policy change on rates of major crimes, including murders. The claim that overly relaxed criminal justice policy drove violence looks shaky; so too does the progressive connection that decriminalization would drive down offenses. Separate analysis by John Pfaff, a criminologist at Fordham University, found that murders went up by almost equal rates in cities with and without progressive prosecutors.
The reality is that the murder wave has effected every part of America – rural, suburban and urban. Some blame the upheaval of the pandemic. Yet the spike in murder was not mirrored in other rich countries that endured disruptive lockdowns. Homicide rates in Canada, Germany and Sweden only marginally increased.
Trends in murder are notoriously difficult to explain. Criminologists still cannot agree on what drove the great homicide decline that began in the 1990s. There is thus considerable debate about what is causing this unfortunate bit of American exceptionalism. It is easier to rule explanations out than endorse any single one. Progressives have blamed easy access to guns which Americans bought in record numbers during the pandemic years. Yet when researchers at the University of California – Davis, computed the correlation of new gun purchases with murders, they found very little.
The Economist tried its hand at this statistical conundrum by gathering high frequency data in ten cities on Covid spread, lockdown severity, and unemployment. We found that homicide rates were worse in areas with higher unemployment. This was also true in areas with more severe lockdowns, which we measured using data gathered from Google on the change in people’s mobility patterns. These correlations, though suggestive, cannot explain what caused the extraordinary upsurge.
That suggests that some humility about policy is in order. Progressive and conservative politicians have all failed to arrest the murder surge. Simple explanations, it turns out, are often simply wrong.