Republicans are trying to terrify the public with stories of rising crime, sending Democrats scrambling to prove that they’re tough on the issue. In President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, he promised to do something about people killed by guns. The solution, he said, is not to defund the police—a rallying cry from the racial justice protests of summer 2020 calling to move resources from police departments to other social investments. “The answer is to fund the police,” he declared.
While headlines have blared stats about rising crime, not all crimes have increased, nor are they at historically high levels. Most property crimes continue to decline, and the rise in violent crimes was largely driven by a spike in homicides. Even so, the murder rate is still 40 percent lower than it was in the 1980s and ’90s. And despite Biden’s call to send in more police, the data is mixed on whether adding more officers reduces crime.
But the idea has taken hold that we are awash in a crime wave. So if we really care about reducing crime, we should make the kinds of investments that have been proven to lower crime rates rather than direct endless sums of money to the police.
We should, for example, spend more money on public schools. In two natural experiments in Michigan, researchers found that when elementary schools were given more funding, students became less likely to encounter the justice system as juveniles and were less likely to be arrested as adults.
Investing in high-quality education in earlier years also reduces crime. A long-running study of participants in a high-quality preschool program in Michigan found that it significantly reduced their involvement in violent crime and their interaction with the criminal justice system, even through age 54. A comparable program in North Carolina similarly reduced students’ involvement in the justice system. While those programs focused on low-income and at-risk students, a much larger universal preschool program in Boston also significantly reduced juvenile incarceration.
Giving kids something to do during the summer helps, too. A study from 2021 found that New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which is the largest in the country, decreased arrests and convictions among participants. Other analyses of programs in Boston and Chicago also found large reductions in arrests.
We don’t just need to invest in people when they’re young to combat crime. A 2020 study found that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act reduces violent crime rates, and another found that it reduces recidivism, particularly by keeping people from committing the same types of violent or public order crimes for which they had previously been convicted. Losing Medicaid coverage, meanwhile, leaves people at greater risk of being incarcerated.
Helping people buy food reduces the likelihood that they will commit crimes. Children whose families receive more food stamps are less likely to be incarcerated as adults. When food stamps run out toward the end of the month, rates of theft go up. Banning people from food stamps based on criminal offenses leads to more recidivism, particularly in financially motivated crimes. Indeed, banning people convicted of drug offenses from public assistance increases recidivism rates.
Housing people works, too. Developing affordable housing in poor neighborhoods significantly reduces violent crime. Children who either grow up in public housing or whose parents get housing vouchers are less likely to be incarcerated later in life.
This is not the strategy we use. A 2017 analysis of 12 urban areas found that police departments consumed huge portions of their budgets—as much as 41 percent. Eleven states spent more on prisons and jails than on higher education in 2013. While the US does spend, in total, more on education and social programs than on our penal system—courts, prisons, and police departments—the ratio is far lower here than in other countries. We spend between four and 12 times as much on addressing the root causes of crime as we do on criminalizing people, but in other advanced countries, the ratio is around 22 times as much. “The United States combines the harshest penal state in the advanced world with its stingiest welfare state,” the historian John Clegg and the sociologist Adaner Usmani write.
If this country actually wants to combat crime, it should invest in the things that make people happier, healthier, and whole. But that, of course, would take changing our entire approach.