Who’s Right on Crime? You may be disappointed by my answer; no ideology has the complete solution. The best and brightest don’t have firm answers as to why crime goes up or down. But an article in the New York Times’ opinion section proposes a balanced approach to criminality, and it’s worth considering, New York Times.

The article, “How Not to Respond to the Rising Murder Rate,” challenges both liberal and conservative approaches.

It’s written by Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School, whom I interviewed several times for my crime-related podcast in D.C.

Many of you are not going to buy Abt’s approach to policing or crime. He’s a progressive, and some will stop reading based on that depiction.

But Abt is not a zealot and it’s instructive to know that some want to understand multiple sides of the crime debate.

Who Controls Public Opinion?

Not all who represent academia look down on justice system employees. They understand that the public’s trust (per Gallup) is invested in us, not advocates or the criminological community.

The ability of academics to change the justice system is limited, if it exists at all. They know that without mainstream justice system employees, their view of change won’t happen.

Crime Rising

Abt opens with an overview of rising crime for the last two years,

[B]ringing the total increase over two years to nearly 22 percent — the largest two-year increase in homicide in 25 years.

What he says next is important,

What to make of this two-year spike in death and violence is unclear, but you can be certain of this: Partisans on all sides will seek to spin this situation to their advantage. And that’s a problem that stunts productive conversation about solutions.

Criminal justice reformers will worry that fear of violent crime could slow the momentum of their movement. As a result, they’ll play down the data that says it’s increasing. They’ll say that it’s too soon to call this a trend, that a few neighborhoods in a few cities are driving the numbers, and remind us that overall rates of violence remain near historical lows.

And maybe this admittance that reformers should stop telling us that, “we have never lived in safer times,” is an opening to bring all sides together.

Those denying or downplaying recent increases in crime are insulting to the tens of thousands of additional victims of violent crime. “Why should they worry,” they ask, “they have never lived in safer times.”

Impasse and Stalemate Will Win the Day

Yes, Abt’s not a friend of President Trump (not allowed in academia),

They’ll double down on outdated tough-on-crime strategies like aggressive prosecutions, mandatory minimum sentencing,

while forgetting that the cover of Time Magazine proclaimed incarceration as the leading cause of reduced crime.

But because of this ideological impasse,

then nothing will change. When it comes to how the country deals with crime, impasse and stalemate will win the day.

He’s right. I’ve never met anyone in the justice system that didn’t recognize the need for change and improvements, and to get there, we have to work together. Until someone on either side “proves” that they have the answers, we’re obligated to listen and learn.

As stated, academics and advocates need the law enforcement and criminal justice community because, for all our faults, the public trusts us more than they trust “them.”

Yes, I understand that we in the justice system have our detractors, and not everyone trusts us. I also acknowledge that some have justifiable concerns plus a history of incredible abuse. But most Americans trust law enforcement to the point, per Gallup, that we are one of the most respected professions in America.


As to liberal theories,

Progressives consistently argue that crime is simply the result of socioeconomic root causes such as poverty, unemployment, and poor education. But the fact that crime rates declined during the Great Depression and remained low during the Great Recession indicate that’s not the case — in reality, crime rates often rise and fall independently of such measures.

Many argue that guns are the crux of that problem, so they push for legal restrictions on them. Most gun crimes, however, are perpetrated with weapons that are already illegally possessed under the laws on the books today.

I’m misrepresenting Abt’s views a bit because he’s equally dismissive of conservative theories, but what follows is the heart of the article,

We need a new national dialogue on crime, one that is less about ideology and more about evidence. The current conversation oversimplifies complex issues, emphasizes blame over responsibility, and encourages deadlock instead of progress. We need to move from argument winning to problem solving, recognizing that all these issues are related to one another, and especially to the violence that needlessly claims so many lives.

The conventional wisdom tells us if we want to reduce violent crime, we should look elsewhere: to poverty, culture, drugs or guns. Decades of data says otherwise

Let’s not deny or diminish the immense suffering of victims of crime and communities that are plagued by violence. And let’s refuse to exploit that suffering by using it to sow fear among Americans. Setting aside the politics will give us the best chance to stop the senseless killing in our country.

He’s right. Until someone proves me wrong, neither side has a lock on truth or transparency. Abt expresses respect for victims of crime and understands that many sociological explanations for crime are simply incorrect.


Sure, I want justice, who doesn’t? I want dangerous people arrested and incarcerated. Why? Because they deserve to be held accountable. I don’t care about the related issues. If someone injures or sexually assaults my daughters or wife, I want them in prison, period.

But for some, do prison terms have to be so long? A local man was sentenced to ten years for burglary and I know that he has a history of mental illness. The length of the sentence was simply wrong. Free up that prison bed for someone truly dangerous.

All of us want justice, equality, efficiency, and safety. All of us are sick of the other side and their wrong-headed observations.

But neither side can make headway without the other. Yes, most progressive theories as to the economy or jobs have been disproven. What cops do does matter as to crime.

But massively long sentences or incarcerating the wrong people are also open to question. Every governor wants to reduce the cost of incarceration because states can’t afford it. Does an arrest have to be made for every offense? Don’t we want people in prison to come out free of mental health and substance abuse issues? Can’t we become partners rather than adversaries with high crime communities?

Bottom Line

Abt believes that the various sides in the crime debate need to come together, remove ideology from the conversation and talk, which is a refreshing considering the condemning nature of most justice system critics.

Maybe we should take him up on the offer.

Thomas P. Abt, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School, is a former deputy secretary for public safety for New York State and a former chief of staff for the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs.


New York Times

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.