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

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Arnold Ventures by Jocelyn Fontaine

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

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.