Colorado’s ‘tsunami of crime’ is in need of a…
A new report from the business-oriented Common Sense Institute finds Colorado awash in a “tsunami of crime.”
Colorado led the nation in its rates of increased property crimes and, separately, auto thefts in 2020, the report found.
The average monthly crime rate in Colorado is 28% higher than it was a decade ago, and the violent crime rate spiked 35% over 2011, according to the report. Nationally, the increase was just 3%.
The two authors of the report directly trace the steep climb in crimes to the state’s criminal-friendly public policy, Colorado Politics reporter Joey Bunch wrote Thursday.
“The Legislature has focused on being offender-friendly vs. victim-friendly,” Republican George Brauchler, former Arapahoe County district attorney, told me. He coauthored the report with Democrat Mitch Morrissey, a former Denver DA.
Others like current Denver District Attorney Beth McCann and Sen. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs, a criminal justice reformer, see a wider range of factors involved in the increase.
Lee said the report disregards things like the recent increase in domestic violence, the rise of anger because of social media, the increase in the number of guns and other societal causes. McCann sees economic and societal hardships from COVID as drivers as well as Colorado’s acute lack of adequate mental health resources and the havoc wreaked by the opioid epidemic.
The more important question to me, right now, is what does Colorado do to bring those rates down?
Brauchler and Morrissey would focus on policies that tighten up rules regarding personal recognizance bonds and low-cost bonds and overturn reforms that have let more criminals out of jail and restricted the range of enforcement actions by police.
The governor, on the other hand, plans to focus more on prevention.
“The governor is fighting for real solutions to address the pandemic-induced rise in crime, including more and better policing, and the governor’s plan to prevent crime from ever taking place through better drug treatment, mental health, youth violence prevention, and important new investments in funding for police officers,” the governor’s spokesman, Conor Cahill, told our reporters and editors.
What approach our state could and should take to reduce crime promises to be a rigorous and important debate in the upcoming election year, and clearly Republicans see an issue that could help them.
What, I wondered, can today’s policymakers learn from earlier, extremely successful efforts to bring crime rates down?
Back in the 1990s, crime fell sharply in Colorado and across the United States.
U.S. homicides plunged 43% from 1991 to 2001; violent and property crime fell 34% and 29%, respectively. Between 1992 and 2001, homicides in Denver dropped 59.1%.
Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, did an exhaustive, well-known study of the reasons crime went down back in the ’90s that could inform the approaches we take to reducing crime in this new wave.
He found four things that had a big impact and six things that he found played little or no role in the decline.
More police. One of the first political responses to increases in crime is to hire more police. Levitt found that a number of studies reached the conclusion that “more police are associated with a reduction in crime, and increases in the number of police on the street in the 90s reduced crime 5-6%.” After the push to defund police in 2020, most policymakers now seem to agree that more police are needed on our streets.
Putting more people in prison. “The 1990s was a period of enormous growth in the number of people behind bars,” Levitt found. He cited two reasons why this worked in the ’90s — offenders were removed from the street and the increased threat of punishment deterred criminals not to commit crimes. But once most of the likely repeat criminals are in prison, putting more people in prison has diminishing returns, Levitt found. Since his study was issued 15 years ago, many other studies have documented the collateral damage done to minority communities by the drive to imprison more people. Sen. Lee also believes there is a kind of “If you build it, they will come effect” to prison building. He and other reformers argue that if we built many more mental health clinics, that would have a much bigger impact on permanently reducing crime.
The receding crack epidemic. Crack cocaine exploded in the 1980s and resulted in extreme patterns of violence associated with it. But once cities cracked down on crack from 1991-2001 and its prevalence ebbed, “young black males experienced a homicide decline of 48%,” Levitt found. Targeting specific drugs as root causes of crime increases makes sense this time around as well, as opioid and fentanyl use and abuse soars in Colorado.
Roe v. Wade The fourth big factor cited by Levitt is one that surprised me: Roe v Wade. In 1999 and again in 2005, Levitt and economist John Donahue concluded that the legalization of abortion was responsible for as much as half of the crime decline. They hypothesized that a drop in unwanted children led to better parenting and fewer delinquent young men. This finding has been challenged in recent years, but is worth paying some attention to as the prospect of the overturn of Roe v Wade becomes a possibility.
The next six factors are ones Levitt found had little or no real impact:
A strong economy. Real GDP per capita grew by almost 30% between 1991 and 2001 and unemployment fell from 6.8% to 4.8%. If economic good times help reduce crime rates, then the economy of the ’90s should have been a big factor. But most studies see a statistically significant but small relationship between unemployment rates and property crime. Violent crime, however, does not vary with the unemployment rate. This finding probably means that crime isn’t going to go down as the economy gets better post-pandemic.
Changing demographics. “The aging of the baby boomers represents a profound demographic shift,” Levitt wrote. Since older folks generally commit fewer crimes, Levitt found that there were just fewer people during the ’90s in the prime crime-committing ages. But he didn’t see this as a major factor. “Demographic shifts may account for a little more than one-sixth of the observed decline in property crime in the 1990s, but are not an important factor in the drop in violent crime,” he wrote.
Better policing strategies. When New York began its “broken windows” policing strategy in the 1990s, in which police cracked down on small crimes in an effort to prevent bigger crimes from happening, many researchers believed the approach was a key contributor to the big drop in crime in the ’90s. But Levitt found that New York’s crime rate was on the way down when Broken Windows was instituted, and its impact was probably exaggerated. Most cities like Denver have moved away from a broken windows strategy. Lately, co-responder strategies in which mental health professionals accompany police on some calls have seen a huge success rate in reducing arrests. Let’s hope our policy makers expand such proven strategies.
Gun control laws. “There is little or no evidence that changes in gun control laws in the 1990s can account for falling crime,” Levitt concluded. He also found that gun buy-back programs were largely ineffective.
He called for more research on the topic and noted that “policies that raise the costs of using guns in the commission of actual crimes, as opposed to targeting ownership, would appear to be a more effective approach to reducing gun crime.”
Concealed weapons laws. After surveying numerous studies on whether laws allowing concealed weapons helped deter criminals, “ultimately,” Levitt concluded, “there appears to be little basis for believing that concealed weapons laws have had an appreciable impact on crime.”
Increase in capital punishment. The number of prisoners put to death in the 1990s quadrupled to 478 from the 117 executed in the 1980s. But Levitt pointed out that even after the increase, the likelihood of a criminal being executed after committing murder was still less than 1 in 200. He argues that the death penalty is not used enough in the United States or in a consistent way to be an effective deterrent, and that any deterrent effect on homicides cannot explain the decline in other crimes in the ’90s.
It’s interesting that Levitt’s finding cut across partisan lines, and speak of a time when policymakers across the political spectrum came together to truly make us safer rather than emit sound bytes to help their parties.
The time has come for more of the same.