Community Engagement Crime February 8, 2024

Redefining Community Safety in Missoula, Montana

Lee Ann Slocum, Claire Greene, Beth M. Huebner, Kiley Bednar, Adriano Udani, Robert Boxerman, Sarah Kirk, Konstadina Spanoudakis, Hayden Steingruby, Elizabeth Lyne, Emelyne Lane

Everyone wants to feel safe in their community. Yet, little is known about how people make sense of what community safety looks and feels like to them. Discussions among policymakers and in the media often emphasize crime rates as a key measure of community safety and the criminal legal system as the primary means of achieving this goal. This traditional conceptualization has several negative consequences. First, it often overlooks the perspectives and experiences of people most impacted by violence, high levels of enforcement, and mass incarceration, many of whom are people of color. Second, low crime rates do not necessarily ensure that residents perceive their community is safe. Other factors, such as media coverage and the physical and social environment, also play a role in shaping views of safety. Moreover, not all crime is reported to authorities, and this may be particularly true in areas where residents experience elevated levels of police enforcement activity and have little trust in the police. Third, relying on crime and other criminal legal system data can provide a narrow and skewed conceptualization of safety because they tend to reflect law enforcement priorities, police discretion, and willingness to report crime. Finally, aspects of safety captured by criminal legal system data may not align with community priorities or values. Narrow crime-oriented definitions often fail to recognize that conversations around community safety are highly localized. Allowing communities to define what safety means to them facilitates the development of locally driven priorities for action and interventions, ultimately helping advance the goal of safety for all.

This report explores the meaning of community safety for people who live and work in Missoula County, Montana by documenting local dynamics of crime, the criminal legal system, and conversations around the meaning of community safety. This report is part of a larger project that considers how adult residents of three US counties (Missoula County, Montana, St. Louis County, Missouri; and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina) define and understand community safety. These counties are currently working on interventions around crime and community safety funded, in part, thought the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge. The goal of the project was to develop a broad conceptualization of community safety that considers the views of people most impacted by crime and the criminal legal system. The findings are based on data from community surveys, as well as interviews and focus groups. The surveys were designed to capture a diversity of community voices. The interviews and focus groups allowed for a more in-depth examination of the views of criminal legal system actors, system-impacted individuals, and people who work with system-impacted persons, groups whose voices are often omitted in work of this type. Throughout, we draw on the interviews to highlight key findings and bring voice to the people closest to the challenges of building and maintaining safe communities.

Elevating Crime Victims’ Voices in Safety and Well-Being Investment

By: Matt Davis

Community Engagement Crime Interagency Collaboration Victims November 3, 2023

Bria Gillum, Senior Program Officer, Criminal Justice for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Aswad Thomas, Vice President of the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), appeared at The Atlantic Festival 2023 in Washington, D.C., in a talk entitled “How to Invest in Safety and Well-Being.” It was part of a session underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation on criminal justice reform.

Bria interviewed Aswad, who survived a robbery attempt that left him with two life-altering gunshot wounds, about his experience as a survivor of violence, and his journey to embrace the Trauma Recovery Center (TRC) model of addressing the needs of crime survivors, who often face the biggest barriers to accessing healing services.

After Aswad left the hospital with his gunshot wounds, there were no support services, or even information about where to look.

“My story might sound unique, but it’s not unique at all,” he said at the conference. “In this country, three million people are crime victims every year, but only nine percent of people get access to victim services.”

Thomas began organizing crime victims and advocating for victims’ rights, and today he is working to expand the ASJ’s national network of crime survivors to elevate their voices in criminal justice reform.

“When you think about the criminal justice system, the voices of crime victims like me have never been at the center of criminal justice policies,” he said. “One thing that we are trying to do is to elevate this new victims’ rights movement, this is calling for new safety solutions to help stop the cycle of violence.”

In addressing this need for advocacy, services, and resources, Aswad spoke about his organization’s TRC model as a “one-stop shop that provides you with all of the recovery services that you need, without all of the red tape.” The first center was developed at San Francisco General Hospital in 2001. Today, there are 52 TRCs in the United States.

He said community is at the heart of what ASJ does. “What we do is we build community,” Aswad said. “We build community with survivors, providing peer-to-peer support. We build community with law enforcement, with advocates, with legislators, and we build that community so that we can start having conversations around our public safety policies.”

Aswad shared some of ASJ’s accomplishments. “In the past 10 years, we passed about 91 criminal justice and public safety reforms across the country. We’ve changed victim compensation programs in about ten states. We’re helping to provide more protections for victims to be safe from employment protections and housing and protections.”

Another area of advocacy for ASJ is criminal justice reform. “Across this country, crime victims are now organizing to change criminal justice policies,” he said. “Past reforms have reduced incarceration and helped to incentivize more rehabilitation for folks who have caused harm. But also working on reforms to remove the barriers for people coming out of the justice system and back into our communities. We also passed laws, so [that crime victims can] access housing, jobs, education, things that help promote stability. Those are the things that help keep communities safe as well.”

In response to a question from Bria about what it means to be safe in your community, Aswad asked the audience to close their eyes and think about where they feel most safe.

“Is it a garden? Is it at church? Is it with family? Think about where you feel most safe. The majority of us in this room, I don’t think we say more police, or that we feel safe with more prisons. We feel more safe in community with each other. So that’s what we need to invest in, more Trauma Recovery Centers, more mental health programs, more solutions to help stop the cycle. That’s how we actually get to true safety in this country.”

You can watch the full conversation on YouTube.

Why Isn’t the Media Reporting on Falling Crime Rates? The Negative Consequences for Reform

By: James Austin

Crime Data Analysis September 28, 2023

As summer concludes, it’s increasingly clear that there was no so-called crime wave. The FBI reported that over-all crime dropped by 10% in the first quarter of 2023 as compared to the first quarter in 2022. In particular, the number of murders dropped by 17%. A national expert in criminal justice data, Jeff Asher, published a piece about it in The Atlantic. Looking at the first six months of 2023 as compared to 2022, the murder rate fell by double digits across America. It was “astonishing”, he wrote.

Yet with few exceptions the media either seems unaware or is uninterested in these downward murder rates because they don’t tend to grab readers’ attention in quite the same way that rising ones do. Drumbeats of murder stories continued in cities across the country. Reporting on downward trends was rarer. The New York Times did run a story citing the drop in shootings in New York City. The 25 percent fall is in line with other falls across the country. But this is an important story to tell as it has significant consequences for the public’s perception of how safe criminal justice reforms are like the Safety and Justice Challenge, a project of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that have significantly reduced jail populations across the country over recent years.

First let’s examine murder rates and why they increased in 2020 and are declining again. Historically, murder rates since 1931 have ranged from 10 to 5 per 100,000 population (see graph below, figure 1). The historic average is 6.7. So, the recent increases since 2020 actually reflect the historic average. Assuming the first six months of 2023 hold, the 2023 rate will dip down to 5.7 – well below the historic average.

Figure 1: US Murder Rates 1931-2023

We have developed a statistical model that accurately projects future crime rates. The model uses several demographic and economic factors that have been shown to be associated with changes in the crime rates.

One of the most important factors in the model is the inflation rate—as the inflation rate goes up and down, so too does the murder rate. There is a lagged effect, as it takes a little time for lower and higher inflation rates to impact people’s behavior.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020 there was an associated increase in the inflation rate reaching a high of over 9 percent (see graph below, figure 2). Not unexpectedly, the crime rates soon began to climb, although never coming close to the high rates of the 1990s when inflation was over ten percent. Today the inflation rate has dropped to 3 percent and so, too, the crime rate has begun to recede. Assuming the inflation rate continues to decline and other factors in our model do not change, crime rates and murders will continue to slowly decline.

Figure 2. Grocery and Headline Inflation, January 2021 to June 2023

Unfortunately, the media and other pundits wrongfully assigned the post-COVID-19 murder rate increases to progressive criminal justice reforms. Bail reform, lenient prosecutors and judges, and police reforms were all cast as the causes of increases in homicides. Yet how does one explain why homicides are now declining with these same reforms still in place?

The tone of crime coverage is important because it shapes public sentiment which in turn can shape public policy. Polls show that the public believes that crime is up, even when the data above show it is down. As sociologists W. I. Thomas and Dorothy Thomas stated almost a century ago, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Public sentiment influences policy makers and their decisions to support or resist criminal justice reforms. The research is very clear that we can reduce jail populations and keep communities safe. But when the media tends to report more on rising and not falling crime rates, it creates significant challenges.

While much has been achieved with the Safety and Justice Challenge, there are signs that some of these results could slip away in part because of erroneous public perceptions and the lack of media reporting about declining crime trends. It will be important for SJC sites, which are showing the same crime drops, to make their case to the public and the local media about what is really going on.

Table 1. SJC Major City Murders 2022 vs 2023

City 2023 2022 Change % Change As Of
Charleston, SC 5 4 1 25% 10-Jul-23
Charlotte, NC 24 19 5 26% 31-Mar-23
Chicago, IL 317 345 -28 -8% 9-Jul-23
Houston, TX 142 186 -44 -24% 31-May-23
Las Vegas, NV 67 67 0 0% 7-Jul-23
Los Angeles, CA 145 187 -42 -22% 1-Jul-23
Memphis, TN 172 123 49 40% 6-Jul-23
Milwaukee, WI 80 114 -34 -30% 11-Jul-23
Nashville, TN 60 56 4 7% 8-Jul-23
New Orleans, LA 127 154 -27 -18% 12-Jul-23
New York, NY 212 231 -19 -8% 9-Jul-23
North Las Vegas, NV 6 12 -6 -50% 31-May-23
Philadelphia, PA 203 281 -78 -28% 9-Jul-23
Pittsburgh, PA 16 18 -2 -11% 31-Mar-23
Portland, OR 36 39 -3 -8% 31-May-23
San Francisco, CA 28 26 2 8% 9-Jul-23
Spokane, WA 5 9 -4 -44% 8-Jul-23
St Louis, MO 82 86 -4 -5% 30-Jun-23
Toledo, OH 17 28 -11 -39% 1-Jul-23
Totals 1,744 1,985 -241 -12%

We Can Reduce Jail Populations and Keep Communities Safe

By: Laurie Garduque

Crime Data Analysis Jail Populations April 6, 2023

A recent uptick in violent crime across the country has alarmed many Americans. But even as communities work to address the root causes of violence and the effects of incarceration, new data from our Safety and Justice Challenge shows there is no link between reducing jail populations and increases in crime. Communities can feel confident in efforts to reform the local criminal justice system and safely reduce the jail population.

Since 2013, MacArthur has invested over $323 million in local justice reform, including tracking progress and analyzing the effectiveness of reform strategies. We have built close partnerships with research leaders in the criminal justice field, including grantee City University of New York’s Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) and the JFA Institute, to examine data from cities and counties participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge.

From this deep engagement with data and our relationships with diverse experts and people with lived experience, we have learned many valuable lessons. And the findings of two new reports—“Jail Populations, Violent Crime, and COVID-19: Findings from the Safety and Justice Challenge” by ISLG and “The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations” by the JFA Institute—are among the most useful and insightful, and reinforce with data what we have heard from people involved in the justice system.

These analyses looked at what happens when cities and counties across the country focus on criminal justice reforms that make the system more fair, just, and equitable. They found that in communities participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge, there is no relationship between reforms that reduce reliance on jails and recent upticks in violent crime across the United States.

Reducing Jail Populations While Keeping Communities Safe

Since the Safety and Justice Challenge began, participating cities and counties have collectively reduced their jail population by 20 percent. This has resulted in about 15,000 fewer people in jail on any given day, allowing individuals, who are legally presumed to be innocent, to instead remain with their families, communities, and hold onto their jobs while their cases were pending.

JFA Institute’s close examination of the data found that even considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily reduced jail populations dramatically nationwide, most Safety and Justice Challenge cities and counties continued to outperform the nation as a whole in reducing jail populations, without jeopardizing community safety. As COVID-19 mitigation efforts wane, these communities have shown that progress can be sustained. Many of the emergency measures taken to reduce the jail populations during the pandemic, and that have remained in place in the months since, do not have an impact on public safety.

Meanwhile, ISLG’s analysis looks at how often individuals released from jail return to custody while their criminal case is still pending. The findings, which use individual-level jail admissions data from 2015 through April 2021, show that reforms focused on releasing people from jail before their trial did not drive recent increases in violent crime. The report found:

  • There is no correlation between declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime through COVID-19.
  • Most individuals released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail. This has remained consistent over the years.
  • Of the small percentage of the individuals rebooked into jail, it was very rare that they returned with a violent crime charge and exceedingly rare that they returned with a homicide charge.

The evidence is clear: cities and counties should push forward with making the criminal justice system more equitable and fair. The decreased use of jails has no impact on crime, particularly violent crime, and communities should look beyond incarceration to address safety concerns. To claim that reforms jeopardize community safety ignores the data and unnecessarily puts the lives of incarcerated individuals and their families at risk.

Digging Into The Data on Jail Populations, Violent Crime, and COVID-19

By: Sana Khan

COVID Crime Data Analysis Jail Populations March 21, 2023

New research findings directly address recent claims about the role of criminal legal reforms in violent crime trends.

In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, jails across the country implemented emergency strategies to reduce jail populations and mitigate the virus’s spread. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, public data show that violent crime and homicides have increased nationally. These increases have put a spotlight on criminal legal reform efforts, with growing public discourse in some political and media circles suggesting that reforms are causing these increases.

These claims often speculate that people released due to efforts to reduce jail populations are responsible for new violent acts committed. They make for attention-grabbing headlines but are not backed by any evidence-based research. They do not acknowledge the concurrent complex web of pandemic-related social and economic strains, or the fact that homicides increased in many major cities that did not enact progressive jail reform efforts.

The recent uptick in violent crime is real, but the increase is reflected across the country. This includes jurisdictions with progressive and traditional prosecutors, and cities and counties pursuing jail reform and those maintaining the status quo.

Digging Into the Data

Data collected from cities and counties participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative funded by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is the basis for one of the only analyses exploring these questions in depth on a national, multi-site scale.

To explore whether increases in violent crime were related to both the pandemic and criminal legal reforms, The CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) analyzed pre and post pandemic jail data on individuals released from jail on pretrial status, defined as people released from physical jail custody while their trial is ongoing, pending the disposition of one or more booking charges. The analysis shows how many individuals released from jail on pretrial status were returned to jail custody within six months (referred to as a rebooking).

The findings from this analysis, using individual-level jail admissions data from March 2015 to April 2021, show that reforms focused on releasing people from jail on pretrial status did not appear to drive recent increases in violent crime. In contrast, ISLG found that for SJC cities and counties:

  • There is no apparent correlation between declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime through COVID-19.
  • Most individuals released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail. This has remained consistent over the years.
  • Of the small percentage of the individuals rebooked into jail, it was very rare to return with a violent crime charge and exceedingly rare to return with a homicide charge.

It is likely that many complex social and economic factors related to the pandemic contributed to the overall increases in violence, and particularly in homicides, that occurred across cities in 2020. However, findings from this analysis suggest that evidence-driven criminal legal reforms were not among those factors.

There is no apparent correlation between declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime through COVID-19

Following the implementation of SJC strategies to reduce local jail populations, SJC cities and counties’ incarceration rates declined at a faster pace compared to the national average, yet trends in violent crime were similar to the national trend. Violent crime was down across SJC sites and the nation between 2017-2019, only increasing during the pandemic in 2020.

Further, when looking at data for individual SJC cities and counties, all 23 SJC cities and counties decreased their incarceration rate between 2019 and 2020, when the pandemic emerged. However, changes in violent crime varied across cities and counties, and larger decreases in the jail population were not always associated with increases in violence.

Percent Change in Incarceration and Violent Crime Rates in SJC Sites, 2019-2020

Most individuals released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail and very rarely were they rebooked on a violent crime charge, which remained consistent over the years

Using data from local jails in SJC cities and counties, ISLG followed people released on pretrial status and measured whether they were rebooked into jail within six months of the release.

This analysis showed that across five years from 2015 to 2020, about three out of four people released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail. In other words, people released from jail

were no more likely to return to jail after the implementation of SJC or CO

VID-19-related strategies for reducing jail populations. Over time, a very small share (two to three percent) of people released on pretrial status were rebooked within six months for a violent charge, a rate consistent before SJC implementation in 2015, during SJC implementation from 2017 to 2019, and through COVID-19 in 2020.

Two to three percent of people released on pretrial status were rebooked on a violent crime charge. Violent Crime Charge Rebooking Outcomes of Individuals Released on Pretrial Status within six months (Average Across SJC Cities and Counties), 2015 to 2020.

While violent crime may have increased in some SJC cities and counties overall, people who were released from jail while their criminal cases were pending were not the cause of these increases. The overwhelming majority of people released on pretrial status between 2015 and 2020 (over 96 percent) did not return to jail on a violent crime charge.

The rebooking rate for homicides specifically was even rarer: over 99% of people released on pretrial status were not rebooked on a homicide charge within six months. This was consistent from 2015 to 2020.

The Need for Evidence-Based Research instead of Attention-Grabbing Headlines

This study adds to the growing evidence that advancing equitable and thoughtful criminal legal reform is possible without compromising public safety. To suggest otherwise without evidence undermines the harms of incarceration on individuals, their families, and communities. Such discourse also distracts from genuine attempts to understand the true causes of rising violent crime, particularly homicides. More research is needed to unpack the increases in violence during a time of even more pronounced disparity in the U.S. as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.