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Public Safety

What Does the Research Say About Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform?

As a spike in homicides triggers a political backlash, top experts identify how an inefficient and ineffective justice system fails to promote public safety.

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In 2020, a record spike in homicides struck cities from coast to coast, big and small, red and blue. While preliminary official 2021 crime counts suggest the rate of increase has slowed, homicides still sit at elevated levels, and public safety has become a top concern for voters leading into the 2022 midterm elections.

Experts have posited various potential explanations for this sudden shift in homicide trends: the increased number of guns on the street; economic and social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; lack of trust in and cooperation with the justice system that sharpened following the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests and calls for racial justice in summer 2020. Meanwhile, partisan politicians and pundits continue to insist, despite research and common sense showing otherwise, that local criminal justice reforms are responsible for this nationwide trend. Firm explanations for the causes for the crime spike are premature and challenging due to data limitations, which undoubtedly complicates the efforts of policymakers who need to take quick action to address violence. 

As a philanthropy dedicated to improving lives by driving sustainable change to the justice system, the spike in homicides and the resulting political pushback by some against criminal justice reform led Arnold Ventures to reflect on the relationship between community safety and justice reform. Arnold Ventures’ programmatic work, from policing to pretrial justice to corrections, is built on the idea that reform and safety are not opposite ends of a spectrum, but can operate in tandem. 

That is why we turned to the experts to help us understand what the evidence says about the relationship between community safety, the justice system, and reform. We collaborated with eight scholars who have deep substantive and methodological expertise in their respective issue areas, and asked that they write discussion papers looking at the state of research around specific aspects of the criminal justice system. These papers each respond to two broad prompts. 

First, how does a particular aspect of the justice system advance or undermine community safety? 

Second, what is your summary or assessment of the evidence, and are there remaining research questions that need to be answered? 

The following six papers are the scholars’ independent and thoughtful reviews of the available evidence in response to those prompts: 

  • Dr. Shani Buggs (University of California, Davis) discusses how sustained reductions in violence require investing in the people and neighborhoods most impacted by violence through adequately funded community-based violence intervention efforts. 
    Read the paper: Community-Based Violence Interruption & Public Safety
  • Dr. Aaron Chalfin (University of Pennsylvania) discusses how investments in law enforcement are a scalable and effective strategy to maintain public safety, particularly when their efforts are focused on the places and people at the highest risk of violent crime. 
    Read the paper: Policing & Public Safety
  • Dr. Sandra Susan Smith (Harvard University) discusses how the costs of pretrial detention far outweigh its benefits for the vast majority of people brought into the system because of the extensive harms done to people detained, their families, and the communities in which they live.
    Read the paper: Pretrial Detention, Pretrial Release & Public Safety
  • Dr. Jennifer Doleac (Texas A&M University) and Dr. Michael LaForest (Penn State University) discuss the limited empirical evidence of the effect of community supervision (probation and parole) policy and practice on community safety despite the scale of its use as a sanction for criminal behavior and alternative to incarceration. 
    Read the paper: Community Supervision & Public Safety
  • Dr. Daniel Nagin (Carnegie Mellon University) discusses how the current incarceration practices in the United States, particularly multi-decade sentences, are an inefficient use of public resources and are not shown by evidence to have a deterrent effect on crime. 
    Read the paper: Incarceration & Public Safety
  • Dr. Megan Denver and Ms. Abigail Ballou (Northeastern University) discuss how widespread post-conviction sanctions, restrictions, and disqualifications for individuals with criminal records and histories of justice system involvement can interact and accumulate in ways that are counterproductive to safety. 
    Read the paper: Collateral Consequences & Public Safety

These papers make a significant contribution to the public conversation as individual products, but they can also be read together as concluding: The evidence suggests there are real public safety benefits associated with the functions of the justice system. At the same time, some of the current practices remain inefficient, produce serious harms, and operate in ways that are counterproductive to community safety.

Reform efforts should be aimed at the specific practices and policies that fail to accomplish their stated goals, inflict unnecessary harm, and impose costs that outweigh the purported benefits. These financial, individual, and social costs aren’t limited to those who are arrested, prosecuted, detained, and incarcerated. Families, friends, communities, and the broader public all pay a price. 

It is also worth noting that policymakers and the public alike are waking up to the reality that, even during recent periods of historically low violent crime, gun violence and homicides have been concentrated in economically disadvantaged Black and Brown neighborhoods, and among young Black and Brown men.1234 For decades, the government has failed to provide the support and investment these neighborhoods need to be safe and thrive. In these communities, relationships with police and the justice system have been defined by a history of marginalization, coercion, and control and a lack of mutual trust and cooperation.567

It is becoming increasingly clear that overreliance on punitive measures — like arrests, detention, and incarceration — not only have a disproportionate impact on poor Black and Brown communities, but are also insufficient to support lasting improvements to public safety. Experts and activists are working to craft and implement new ways to build sustainably safe neighborhoods by coupling community investments with a system response.

At the same time, as these scholars discuss in their papers, significant gaps exist in our understanding of the efficacy of alternatives to the criminal justice system status quo. Consistent with our mission to maximize opportunity and minimize injustice — and encouraged by these compelling papers — Arnold Ventures will continue to build the evidence and test innovations on advancing safety and justice reform and use the best available evidence to drive public conversation and craft policy that can improve people’s lives. 

  1. 1

    Braga, Anthony, David M. Hureau, and Andrew V. Papachristos. 2010. The concentration and stability of gun violence at micro places in Boston, 1980–2008. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 26:33–53

  2. 2

    Weisburd DL, Bushway S, Lum C, Yang S-M (2004) Trajectories of crime at places: a longitudinal study of street segments in the city of Seattle. Criminology 42:283–321

  3. 3

    Weisburd, David, and Cody W. Telep. 2014. Law of crime concentrations at places. In Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, eds. David Weisburd and Gerben Buinsma. New York: Springer Verlag

  4. 4

    Andresen, Martin A., and Nicolas Malleson. 2011. Testing the stability of crime patterns: Implications for theory and policy. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 48:58–82

  5. 5

    Bell, Monica. 2020. “Legal Estrangement: A Concept for These Times.” American Sociological Association Special Issue: Race, Police Violence, and Justice, p.7-8

  6. 6

    Hinton, Elizabeth and DeAnza Cook. 2021. “The Mass Criminalization of Black Americans: A Historical Overview.” Annual Review of Criminology, 4(1), 261-86

  7. 7

    Sossm, Joseph and Vesla Weaver. 2017. Police Are Our Government: Politics, Political Science, and the Policing of Race-Class Subjugated Communities. Annual Review of Political Science, 2017, 20:565-91