In 2020, the increase in homicides in dozens of American cities was record-breaking.
This unexpected climb was made worse by the fact that those living in the cities hardest hit by the crime spike were, like everyone else, already reeling from the life-altering effects of COVID.
The sudden rise in crime in the U.S. predictably triggered acidic debates about what had caused the startling new numbers.
Yet, rather than engage in fact-driven problem solving, in many regions the local tough-on-crime afficionados repurposed the news of the crime rise as a political tool to use in order to oust any office holders who favored justice reform, particularly the growing number of reformist prosecutors who had been elected in the last few years in certain cities around the nation.
And so it was that progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin found himself blamed for any and all crime spikes in San Francisco, and thus was recalled this past June.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there were two high profile attempts to oust LA’s reformist district attorney George Gascón, who had defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey by a healthy margin in November 2020, after promising exactly the kind of reform he subsequently implemented after he took office in December 7, 2020, as the 43rd DA of Los Angeles County.
The supporters of the Gascón recall, which prominently included former sheriff Alex Villanueva, failed to gather the requisite number of legal signatures to put the question on the ballot. Yet, in the process of promoting the possibility of the LA DA’s ouster, the recall’s main advocates relentlessly spread the progressive-policies-cause-crime message, with frequent appearances on Fox News and other media outlets, to the point that their thesis is still is often viewed in some camps in LA and beyond as accurate.
During this year’s November elections, in many other U.S. cities, and states, the same strategy became a talking point and, in many instances, a political cudgel.
So what is the truth of the matter?
Recently, that question appears to have been convincingly answered at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, located at the University of Toronto, where researcher/theorists Todd Foglesong and Ron Levi—plus a group of five additional researchers from five different U.S. universities—have issued a new and exhaustively researched report.
No evidence found
To arrive at their conclusions, the seven researchers described how they first pooled data from 65 major cities, and then conducted a “statistical regression analysis” of trends in violent crime. In addition to murder, the research group looked at robbery and larceny in two dozen of those cities.
Once those tasks were accomplished, the group compared the incidence of homicide before and after the election of progressive prosecutors in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles, cities where the academics were already conducting on-going research which looked at various changes in criminal justice in those municipalities.
Interestingly, the report’s authors, Todd Foglesong and Ron Levi, noted that their group used only data that had been made public by local police departments, rather than the FBI’s national annual compilation of crime numbers.
“This is because not all law enforcement organizations submit their data to the FBI,” they explained.
In their report, the researchers made clear that that the rise in murders is assuredly a big deal, and an essential topic of study.
In fact, they noted, the magnitude of the overall increase in homicide in the first year of the pandemic represented the “greatest annual increase in over 100 years,” according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Yet, while the crime rise was inarguably disturbing, the more the researchers probed the matter, it seemed the more they found that any connection to progressive reforms appeared to be absent.
In fact, less than than half of the cities that saw big jumps in their murder stats were served by progressive prosecutors in 2020, said the authors.
Furthermore, homicides decreased rather than increased in several major cities, including those served by progressive prosecutors.
And while they were on the topic, the two authors noted that the “greatest proportional increase in homicide in 2020 took place in Mesa, Arizona, a city served by a conservative prosecutor.”
In the end, after still more comprehensive probing, the authors wrote that they found “no evidence to support the claim that progressive prosecutors were responsible for the increase in homicide during the pandemic, or before it.”
The authors only found what they described as “weak evidence” to support the claim that prosecutors of “any broad approach to crime and justice,” was causally associated “with changes in homicide during the pandemic,”whether that approach was reformative, or more law-and-order conservative.
But, the authors could positively conclude, they said, “that progressive prosecutors did not cause the rise in homicide in the United States, neither as a cohort nor in individual cities.”
The researchers also described how they had discovered no relationship between the incidence of robbery or larceny and the election of progressive prosecutors.
In fact, in 2020, robbery decreased in 49 of the 64 cities which reported data on this offense, according to the report’s authors.
The greatest increase in robbery, said the researchers, “was recorded in Fresno, followed by Minneapolis, Louisville, and Aurora, all cities served by ‘traditional’ prosecutors.”
What about Los Angeles?
So, did the report’s authors have anything to say about Los Angeles specifically?
As a matter of fact they did.
The authors wrote that they found no evidence of an association between progressive prosecution and homicide in Los Angeles County.
Here’s what they saw:
“In 2020, the year before George Gascón was elected District Attorney, homicides increased by 38 percent in the city of Los Angeles proper and by 37 percent in cities policed by the Sheriff.”
The following year they noted that “homicides rose only 12 percent” in the city of Los Angeles, whereas, in municipalities policed by the [LA County] Sheriff, the rate of growth (41 percent) exceeded that in the first year of the pandemic.”
Bottom line: “The disparate patterns in homicide across the cities that make up Los Angeles County suggest that the policies of the prosecutor do not have a direct relationship to levels of lethal violence,” wrote the authors.
As to why there was a 47 percent jump in murders in LA County in 2021, as compared to the 12 percent rise in the city of Los Angeles, the researchers did not speculate.
“I think it’s really important to emphasize the extent to which we looked for a relationship” between a prosecutors’ commitment to reform and crime rates, “and found none” study author Todd Fogleson said of the new report.
Fogleson and his partner Ron Levi also noted that their findings and analyses echoed the findings of several other researchers who have recently studied the effects of progressive prosecution on crime.
So there you have it.
And, if you want to read more of the report, you can download it here.
Note: Chart at top shows change in homicide in 65 Major Cities, 2015-2019