Violent Crime Jumps Double Digits; Is Sentencing Reform in Danger?

Crime hasn’t been a burning wedge issue this election season, but that may soon change. After years of steady declines, violent crime spiked by double digits last year.

Between 2010 and 2011, the rate of violent victimization increased 17 percent, from 19.3 to 22.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons 12 or older, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced Thursday.

The increased violence could have a chilling effect on a plethora of sentencing and prison reform campaigns underway from California to Kansas. Tough-on-crime advocates could use these new statistics and, say, a highly publicized murder case to amplify their argument for throw-away-the-key criminal justice.  

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For instance, back in the 1990s, the murder of a 12-year-old girl in Petaluma, California, inspired the state’s three-strikes law. Sacramento enacted the draconian measure—25 years-to-life in prison for three felony offenses—after Polly Klaas was kidnapped from a slumber party by Richard Allen Davis, a career criminal, and subsequently sexually assaulted and killed.

Since 1993, though, crime is down 72 percent across the country, according to the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think thank. 

This November, California voters will weigh a measure to scrap the three-strikes law, which has helped swell the state’s prison population to the largest in the country. But voters considering the issue could be swayed by the new figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“The increase in total violence was due to a 22 percent increase in the number of aggravated and simple assaults,” the Bureau stated in a release. 

Meanwhile, burglaries were up 14 percent and intra-family domestic violence saw an increase of 300,000 reported incidents. 

The increase comes as states have been slashing prison budgets and moving money into parole and probation monitoring. Texas is a great example. The state perhaps best known for its rawhide-tough approach to criminal justice gave up plans five years ago to build eight new prisons and instead put more money into probation programs, outpatient treatment and drug courts.

Meanwhile, many states are considering doing away with the death penalty. Lawmakers in Montana, Maryland, Washington and Kansas are considering legislation that would halt executions, and California citizens will also vote on that issue in November. 

But will voters be frightened back into supporting the eye-for-an-eye policies these new measures are trying to replace? According to one expert, probably not:

“A lot of attitudes have changed over the past few years. This issue has not been as easy to sensationalize as it has been in the past,” Vikrant Reddy, an analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a senior policy adviser to Right On Crime, a conservative group advocating for prison and sentencing reform, tells TakePart.

“I do think we’re at a real moment when we’re in agreement that some of the policies that were imposed [in the past] haven’t worked,” he says. “Now, we’re closing down prisons, locking fewer people up and crime is still dropping.”

He noted that states like Texas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana have taken the lead in reducing their bloated prison populations. “The fact that these states have managed to cut spending [on prisons] and still get great public safety results” shows the policy shift toward community-based sentencing for drug and non-violent offenders has worked, says Reddy. “It’s one thing if Vermont makes this argument; it’s another if Texas makes this argument.”

Reddy says the 2010-11 increase only appears dramatic because it comes after years of steady declines. “Crime rates were so low in 2010 that they couldn't help but go up in 2011,” he says.

Considering the recent uptick in violent crime, will you feel safer if more people are in prison? Leave your reasons in COMMENTS.

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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.