Don’t blame bail reform for gun violence


Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across the country have struggled with an increase in violent crime. Bail reform – which has been proven to promote public safety and improve access to pre-trial justice – has come under intense scrutiny in recent months in an ongoing effort to divert attention from the real root of the country’s violent crime problem: the availability of firearms. Powerful stakeholders with perverse incentives to preserve cash bail have taken over the national conversation and filled it with unsubstantiated claims that bail reform is linked to increased violent crime rates. The truth is, bail reform makes us safer, and it’s access to guns that is a major driver of violent crime and homicide.

Violent crime during the pandemic

The United States is experiencing a spike in violent crime primarily due to increased gun violence. The United States saw significant increases in homicides and firearm-related incidents in 2020, followed by smaller, but still significant, increases in 2021, while rates of most property and related crimes to drugs have decreased over the same period:

  • 63 of the 66 largest police jurisdictions saw an increase of at least one violent crime category in 2020.
  • There was a 28% increase in the national firearm homicide rate from 2019 to 2020* and an additional 7% from 2020 to 2021.
  • 70% of law enforcement reported an increase in non-fatal shootings from 2019 to 2020.
  • From 2019 to 2020, residential burglaries decreased by 24%, non-residential burglaries by 7%, thefts by 16% and drug offenses by 30%. Burglary, theft and drug-related crime rates were lower in 2021 by 6%, 1% and 12%, respectively, compared to 2020.

The causes of rising violent crime rates are complex and there are likely a number of contributing factors. For example, the pandemic has exacerbated socioeconomic factors such as poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, and underfunded schools, all of which have long been associated with increased crime. The link between socio-economic factors and crime may explain why increases in violent crime have been concentrated in communities with high rates of poverty and unemployment.

Some point to mistrust between communities and the police as another reason for the increase in crime. Community trust in the police has declined following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protest against police brutality. A lack of confidence in the ability of the police to keep communities safe can cause people to refrain from seeking support from law enforcement, thus exacerbating conflict and retaliation. It also results in reduced cooperation with police investigations, which contributes to low rates of solving serious crimes.

Others point to the rapid increase in gun ownership that resulted in the sale of an estimated 22 million guns in 2020 contributing to the increase in violence. In 2020, 3.8 million people became new gun owners, leading to 9.3 million people, including 3 million children, now having guns in their homes.

Violent crime is a multi-factor problem, making it difficult to isolate a single factor responsible for its increase. However, one thing is clear in the vast majority of violent crimes: guns are the common denominator, not bail.

Current cash bail systems simultaneously increase crime, racial injustice and economic injustice

Every person should feel safe in their home and in their community. While these recent increases in violent crime signal the need for targeted interventions, ignoring the role of guns and rolling back much-needed bail reforms will not result in the desired reduction in violent crime. The knee-jerk blaming the criminal justice system is an all-too-common refrain that has done nothing to address the root causes of violence in the United States. For decades, tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric have produced systems of mass criminalization and incarceration that have failed to make communities safer.

Assigning cash bail – a sum of money that an arrested person must pay to be released before trial – diminishes public safety. For instance:

While people who have money can afford to pay the cost of bail and secure their release, those who cannot afford it are forced to stay in jail or risk losing their homes, employment or child care. Stark racial disparities exist in the awarding of cash bail, with blacks being 3.6% more likely to be issued bail and receive bails $7,280 more on average than their white counterparts. As a result of unfair cash bail practices, 80% of those incarcerated in the United States under local authority have not been convicted of a crime.

Case studies show bail reform is not to blame

Recognizing the public safety and fairness implications of granting cash bail, jurisdictions across the United States—both statewide and local jurisdictions—have implemented bail reforms to safely reduce reliance on money in pre-trial decision-making. Some have eliminated the use of cash bail entirely or for certain crimes. Others have banned pretrial detention solely on the basis of their inability to post cash bail. Others have specified factors that may be considered when determining bail. Below are four examples of bail reforms that resulted in stable pre-trial re-arrest rates before and after the reform.

New Jersey

The New Jersey Legislature virtually eliminated cash bail in 2017 and dramatically reduced pretrial incarceration rates through a combination of Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act reforms.

  • 99.6% of those released were not arrested for a serious offense before and after bail reform (2017-2019)
  • 86.3% of those released were not arrested before and after bail reform (2017-2019)
  • 19 people were released on bail in New Jersey in 2020
  • New Jersey had a 5% increase in homicides below the national average in 2020. New Jersey’s overall violent crime rate in 2020 decreased by 5.5% while the national average increased by 4.7% .

New York City

The New York State Legislature implemented legislation in 2020 that prohibited the awarding of cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and felonies; required judges to consider an individual’s ability to pay before granting cash bail; and required individuals to have at least three options for securing bail. Just three months after its implementation, another law reversed many of the reforms by making more charges eligible for bail and allowing a wider category of individuals to be incarcerated before trial. .

  • 95% of those released had not been arrested before the reform (January 2019)
  • 96% of those released were not arrested after the reform (January 2020 and December 2021)
  • 99% of those released were not arrested for a violent crime (January 2019, January 2020, December 2021)

Cook County, Illinois

The Cook County Circuit Court issued General Order 18.8A (GO18.8A) in 2017, which created a presumption of release without monetary bail for those eligible for bail and required that bail amounts monetary policy are affordable, where appropriate.

  • 31% more people were released on bail after the reform
  • 4% increase in post-reform bail rates
  • There was no change in re-arrest rates before and after the reform: 83% of those released were not arrested after their release.
  • 97% of those released were not arrested for a violent crime before and after the reform

Conclusion

There is a dearth of information linking bail reform to increased violent crime in the United States, yet there is overwhelming evidence that gun violence is the primary driver of violent crime. While gun violence has increased in jurisdictions across the country, regardless of their bail practices, pretrial re-arrest rates in bail reform jurisdictions have remained stable. Moreover, no jurisdiction has provided credible evidence that bail reform is responsible for the recent increase in violent events. Bail reform makes individuals and communities safer, saves taxpayers money, and promotes fairness and justice. While no single factor has caused the recent increase in violent crime, one thing is clear: violent crime is driven by guns rather than bail reform.

*Authors’ note: Information from the Center for American Progress analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Injury Prevention & Control: Data & Statistics (WISQARS): Fatal Injury Data”, available at https://wisqars.cdc.gov/fatal-reports (last consulted in May 2022).

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