The FBI released its widely anticipated 2015 crime data on Monday, revealing that murders jumped nearly 11% from the previous year and violent crime rose by nearly 4%.
Criminal justice experts have been quick to put those numbers in context, noting that the violent crime rate is still near the bottom of a 30-year trend despite last year’s spike.
Half of the rising murder rate, too, can be attributed to Chicago alone, as a Brennan Center report determined last week.
Researchers have sought to calm the hysteria over the FBI’s latest data, arguing that an overreaction to a one-year increase in violent crime could set back any progress the criminal justice reform movement has achieved. They say this shift in tactics, in turn, could wield collateral damage on communities that is as harmful, if not more harmful than the increase in crime itself.
Republican nominee Donald Trump has already declared US crime “out of control” and lauded tough-on-crime tactics such as stop-and-frisk, while his opponent Hillary Clinton has portrayed the crime rate as being at a “historic low” and called for less aggressive policing and sentencing.
On a conference call to media, Fordham law professor John Pfaff cited the human costs to mass incarceration, including decreased life expectancy among inmates and the impact of their absence on their families and children.
“The problem is that the politics of crime in the US are structured as such that we’re going to basically ignore those costs,” Pfaff said. "The people who elect the (district attorneys), for example, tend to be richer, whiter suburbanites who don’t feel those costs — but they feel the safety they perceive.“
"The system is designed to overreact, and in fact, the rhetoric on Monday will overreact. And we overreact to increases and we underreact to decreases … Everyone thinks there are better and smarter ways to do this. But the reaction is going to be to point to the very system that works least efficiently.”
The idea of tempering reactions to upticks in crime tends to get pegged as an exclusively liberal point of view, but it’s actually more complicated. Some conservative criminal justice reform groups are skeptical of leaning too heavily on crime data to shape policy and prosecution, according to Pastor Michael McBride, the director of PICO National Network and a gun violence prevention activist. Meanwhile, many progressives still believe that rising crime rates can be solved by tough-on-crime tactics.
“Part of what many of us are trying to actually do is win an argument even within some liberal and progressive spaces that the way to respond to concentrated expressions and upticks of violence is not to do an overreaction that will further militarize or over-police a whole community,” McBride told media.
“But we are winning the argument, and hopefully this argument can continue to be furthered — not through fear and hysteria, but through measured, compassionate, and empathetic interventions.”