There will be much written about President Obama’s legacies. One legacy that tends to go unmentioned by the president’s admirers is the historic spike in violent crime we have seen over the last two years of his administration.
The bad news is that Donald Trump will have to deal with this. The good news is that we know how to get the job done. We can be sure we know because we did so for an entire generation, from 1991 though 2014, largely by implementing the sensible, bipartisan policies adopted by Bill Clinton and George Bush — but foolishly repudiated by Obama.
When error is inevitable, as we know it will be in early release decisions, its risks and costs should be borne by the criminal, who made his own choices, not by the next victim, who had never had a choice.
The Crime Spike is Real
Trump’s opponents routinely accused him of fear-mongering when he pointed to the increased crime that has plagued the country for the last 24 months. But Trump was telling the truth — while his opponents were peddling a misleading, and dangerous, complacency.
Crime started falling in the early nineties largely (although not exclusively) because of four things we did. We hired more police, pursued more proactive and aggressive policing strategies, adopted statutes to constrain overly lenient judges, and sentenced more criminals to longer terms.
It worked. Over that time, crime fell by half. The murder rate fell by more than that. In 1991, it was 9.8 victims per 100,000 population; by 2014, it was 4.4 victims. In 1991, 24,700 people were murdered in this country; 23 years later, and with a considerably larger population, there were more than 10,000 fewer murder victims. Our tough-on-crime policies have been arguably the most important domestic policy success of the last 50 years.
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Starting roughly with the anti-police “Black Lives Matter” movement, and its embrace by liberals and the Obama administration, however, we have begun to backslide. The corpses are already piling up. Last year, 1,532 more people were murdered in the United States than the year before. The picture is even worse in big cities, where minorities tend to be concentrated. The Washington Post reported that, in the 50 largest cities, murder was up 17 percent in 2015 from the year before, the largest increase since at least 1960. TIME magazine tells us that this year has been even worse, noting in a May article that, “New data point to 2016 as even deadlier than 2015.” Chicago, whose policing is now essentially overseen by the ACLU through a consent decree, saw its 600th homicide this year a month ago, and is on track for the deadliest year in more than two decades. Thirteen people were killed over Father’s Day weekend alone — and another 13 over Labor Day weekend.
A murder spree this big over 24 months is not a statistical fluke, unlike what Trump’s opponents falsely claimed. And although liberals are correct in observing that crime remains at levels much lower than in the 1990s, their argument is both distorted and cynical. It’s distorted because it adopts a dismissive attitude toward a major, lethal, and growing problem. It’s cynical because the Left wants to repeal — and, under President Obama, has started to repeal — exactly the policies that produced the success they now use for cover.
Two Things President Trump Can Do to Curb the Crime Spike
As noted, although present trends are very worrisome — and particularly grim for minorities, who are disproportionately victims of the surge in violent crime — the answers are at hand. President Obama’s policies tell us what fails. The policies of his predecessors tell us what works. We should reject the former and reclaim the bipartisan consensus that produced the latter.
First, we need to respect police and police work. In this, the public is way ahead of the Obama administration. At precisely the time the disastrous results of going soft have come home to roost, public confidence in the police has soared. As The Post reported last month:
“If you ask Americans how they feel about their local police, people say they have more respect for them than they have in almost half a century.”
“A Gallup poll released this week found that a little more than three in four Americans (76 percent) reported having ‘a great deal’ of respect for the police who patrol their communities,” The Post noted, “a significant uptick over last year and the highest share reported to Gallup since 1967.”
The police are public servants and are accountable for their behavior (and misbehavior) just as any other public servant must be. But the unhinged rhetoric of “Black Lives Matter” (“Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon”) is vile, corrosive, and unworthy. (It’s also false: The surge in respect for police utterly belies the BLM claim that loss of respect for, and thus willingness to cooperate with, police accounts for much of the recent crime spike. As is typical of BLM rhetoric, the facts tell, not just a different tale, but the opposite one).
A Trump administration that works with police rather than against them, and honors the Founders’ understanding that policing is a state and local function and not a fiefdom of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, will make a good start in restoring success against crime.
Second, we need to put and keep criminals where they won’t harm innocent, law-abiding citizens.
It would be nice to believe that the people we send to prison have simply made a “mistake,” and, if we’d be more understanding, they’d take advantage of shorter sentences and early release to lead peaceful, productive lives.
Nice to believe — but, overwhelmingly, not true. Eric Holder’s Justice Department issued a study two years ago showing the recidivism rate nationwide to be a staggering 77 percent: “Within five years of release, 82 percent of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 77 percent of drug offenders, 74 percent of public order offenders, and 71 percent of violent offenders.” And those rates are certain to be understated, because huge amounts of crime go unreported. Property crime goes unreported because the public knows that overburdened police simply cannot keep up; and drug trafficking goes under-reported because the person enslaved by addiction hardly wants to see his supplier put out of business.
With recidivism rates like this, shorter sentences and early release will mean one thing: more crime, faster. With violent crime already spiking and a heroin epidemic that even the Obama administration realizes is out of control, we need to ask seriously the question Trump’s law-and-order campaign put before us: In this climate, do we want the cost of committing crime to go down?
It’s too obvious to need elaboration that lowering sentences reduces the cost, to the criminal, of his behavior. This is not something we need to do; in today’s world, it’s precisely what we need to avoid doing.
The common liberal answer — that we can afford to lighten up on “non-violent, low-level” drug dealers — misses the mark, for at least three reasons. First, drug dealing is an inherently violent business; an affable transaction today is tomorrow’s bloody shootout. Second, the definition of “low-level” has no operational meaning: A drug conspiracy can no more operate without its couriers than a pizza delivery business can operate without its cars. Third, we cannot reliably tell who is violent and who isn’t (as the early release of crack-dealer-turned-child-killer Wendell Callahan showed). When error is inevitable, as we know it will be in early release decisions, its risks and costs should be borne by the criminal, who made his own choices — not by the next victim, who had never had a choice.
Donald Trump was not a flawless candidate, as none of us is without flaws. But on crime and punishment, he had the ideas Congress should embrace.
William G. Otis is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown, former special counsel for President George H. W. Bush, and a former federal prosecutor.