"Smart on Crime" Doesn't Lower Crime Rates or Recidivism
Those who advocate against “tough on crime” policies often invoke Texas as the prime example of a place where sentencing regimes are more lenient for so-called “non-violent” offenders, mostly in the drug trade. Chuck Devore and Randy Petersen of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for instance, maintain that the results of criminal justice reforms have been: “reduced recidivism, lower costs, and a state-wide crime rate reduced to levels not seen since 1968.” But Texas crime statistics don’t paint such a rosy picture of the state’s experiment in reduced sentencing.
Start with crime. In Texas’s largest cities, data from the police departments show a significant rise in the past year — much more than can be accounted for by population growth in the Lone Star State.
Specifically, violent crime over the past year has risen in Texas’s five largest cities (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth) by 14%, comparing the first half of 2015 to 2016 according to data from the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association. And, in all of the cities, most violent crime categories are up, too.
If we now project out homicide — the most heinous and worrisome type of crime — based on first half 2016 figures, this year represents another substantial increase in murder for the Lone Star state.
The raw data from 2014 to 2015 demonstrates the trend line clearly: Murder is up from 2014, especially in the biggest cities in Texas. (In their response to my last piece on this topic, Chuck Devore and Randy Petersen correct an error in my previous calculation of 2014 violent crime for Houston.)
Recent data suggests that the previous two decades of crime declines are now stopping and even reversing. And Texas’ “smart on crime” approach has not changed that trajectory. Claims to the effect that criminal justice reforms reduce crime and increase public safety are talking points belied by recent trend lines.
As the above chart shows, through 2014 homicide fell dramatically in large U.S. states, including Texas, and most dramatically in New York, where the Giuliani-Bratton model saved thousands of lives.
As for violent crime, comparing U.S. levels to Texas reveals a similar pattern: Rates fell through 2014, but most dramatically during the much maligned “tough on crime” era of the 1990s. Texas actually fell below national averages during that period, but has since risen above them. “Smart on Crime” policies have little to no effect on such trends.
Reformers in Texas also claim that their approach reduces prison populations and recidivism through their lenient sentencing and diversion programs. But the data suggest otherwise.
In fact, re-arrest rates are not declining, but have recently ticked upwards or remained flat. One might point to a decline in “re-incarceration” as evidence of the effectiveness of these reforms on recidivism. However, it’s unsurprising that re-incarceration rates are reduced when penalties for offenders are reduced; that doesn’t necessarily mean more criminals have been “cured,” only that they’re receiving different — more lenient — punishments. Hence re-arrest rates are a better metric by which to measure recidivism.
Furthermore, reductions in spending on corrections — when the crime rate is up and the prison population is expected to crest again — have put strain on Texas’s ability to hold the individuals that do deserve to remain behind bars and monitor those that have been released. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice believes that this will increase recidivism.
Whatever Texas’ criminal justice reforms are doing, they aren't reducing crime or recidivism in any meaningful way.
Sean Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as a senate aide, television producer, and fellow at public policy think tanks.