Cities are witnessing a summer of homicides as shooting deaths increase amid the perfect storm of economic, societal, and political conditions, including the release of thousands of inmates nationwide to prevent the pandemic from spreading through prisons.
But the extent to which inmate releases from county jails, state prisons, and federal prisons has affected crime is no simple calculation, criminal justice and crime experts told the Washington Examiner.
“It’s too early to tell definitively, but I think that it is intuitively pretty clear to see the effect [decarceration] might have,” said Rafael Mangual, deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute. “There is other research out there that shows higher levels of decarceration ties to upticks in crime.”
Mangual pointed to a February study by two University of Utah law and economics professors that found that easing bail in Chicago’s Cook County in 2017 led to more people being released ahead of their trial. The result was a “substantial increase” in additional crimes committed ahead of the trial. Another study released weeks before cities and states shut down in March found a similar bail reform initiative that went into effect in New York City in January may already be having unfortunate consequences. In January, New York City’s crime rate increased 17% compared to a year earlier as people were not held in jail until trial.
Retired New York Police Department detective and former FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force officer Angel Maysonet said that 2,500 inmates have been released from the city’s main jail at Rikers Island amid the pandemic. Approximately 300 of them have been rearrested, and several who had been awaiting trial or arraignment for violent crimes committed new violent crimes after being released earlier than normal.
“You have domestic violence offenders who are in there for a reason,” said Maysonet. “And then you have their victims who are at home, who are waiting for some sort of safe haven or some sort of resolution, and these defendants who are back out — no order of protection — they get terrorized, and they get hurt or killed. It’s tragic. It’s really tragic.”
Crime overall since March appears to have declined nationwide, according to several organizations tracking dozens of arrests. Across 25 major U.S. cities, homicide has risen 18% in 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, while violent crime such as sexual assault or robbery and property crimes have slightly decreased, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.
The American Civil Liberties Union released a report on Monday that crime trends were not related to the release of inmates or pre-trial suspects. An ACLU graphic showed declines in jail populations by 10%-40% in 29 U.S. cities, though it did not include New York City, Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, or El Paso, Texas. Overall crime incidents, not individual charges, stayed the same or dropped up to 30%.
“We found no evidence of any spikes in crime in any of the 29 locations, even when comparing monthly trends over the past two years,” the report states. “The release of incarcerated people from jails has saved lives both in jails and in the community, all while monthly crime trends were within or below average ranges in every city.”
James Fox, professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University, wrote in an email that he was “not surprised at all” by the findings.
“The offenders who have been released during the pandemic tended to be low-level criminals, not extremely violent individuals,” Fox said. “In terms of crime trends, homicide is spiking in some cities, not all, but there does not seem to be a surge in less serious crime, especially property offenses.”
Mangual said that the report did not study June, when riots broke out amid peaceful protests in many cities. Additionally, Mangual said crime historically is lower in spring than in summer. In the case of 2020, the majority of the country was in lockdown in the spring, making many crimes harder to commit, thus leading to a decline in crimes of opportunity, not justifying the release of inmates.
“There’s a real limit from what you can get from the data reported,” said Mangual. “I don’t think it leads to the conclusions that decarceration is sort of cost-free.”
Amy Povah is a former federal inmate who was granted clemency and now works to free others through her CAN-DO organization. She works with approximately 100 federal inmates who she said have proven themselves and will not eventually be recidivism statistics.
“There’s been quite a few people released on home confinement or compassionate release. We don’t know anybody who’s re-offended,” said Povah. “I know there’s that odd case that grabs headlines … Stories like that seem to erase all the good and all the wonderful people who will never re-offend — me.”
The Bureau of Prisons, which handles federal prisons, said it has placed 7,141 inmates into home confinement, but Povah said she believes many were transferred from halfway houses to home confinement, not from prisons. That could mean fewer federal prisoners are out than believed.
Approximately 50,000 inmates at federal and state prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus.