Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across the country have been grappling with increases in violent crime. Bail reform—which has been proven to promote public safety and improve access to pretrial justice—has come under scrutiny in recent months in a continued effort to distract from the real root of the country’s violent crime problem: the availability of guns. Powerful stakeholders with perverse incentives to preserve cash bail have grabbed hold of the national conversation and filled it with unfounded claims that bail reform is linked to increased rates of violent crime. The truth is that bail reform makes us safer—and it is gun access that is a key driver of violent crime and homicides.
Violent crime during the pandemic
The United States is experiencing a violent crime spike driven primarily by increased gun violence. The United States saw significant increases in homicides and gun-related incidents in 2020 followed by smaller, but still significant, increases in 2021, whereas rates of most property and drug crimes have decreased over this same period:
- 63 out of 66 of the largest police jurisdictions experienced an increase in at least one category of violent crime in 2020.
- There was a 28 percent increase in the national rate of gun homicides from 2019 to 2020* and an additional 7 percent from 2020 to 2021.
- 70 percent of law enforcement agencies reported an increase in nonfatal shootings from 2019 to 2020.
- From 2019 to 2020, residential burglary decreased by 24 percent, nonresidential burglary by 7 percent, larceny by 16 percent, and drug offenses by 30 percent. Burglary, larceny, and drug offense rates were lower in 2021 by 6 percent, 1 percent, and 12 percent, 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 exacerbated socioeconomic factors such as poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, and underfunded schools, all of which have long been associated with increases in crime. The connection between socioeconomic factors and crime could explain why the upticks in violent crime have been concentrated in communities where there are high rates of poverty and unemployment.
Some point to the mistrust between communities and the police as another reason for increased crime. Community trust in police declined as a result of the murder of George Floyd and the protest movement against police violence that followed. A lack of trust in the police’s ability to keep communities safe can cause people to refrain from seeking the support of law enforcement, thereby exacerbating conflict and retaliation. It also results in reduced cooperation with police investigations, contributing to low clearance rates for serious crimes.
Others point to the rapid increase in gun ownership that resulted in the sale of an estimated 22 million guns in 2020 as a contributing factor to the rise in violence. In 2020, 3.8 million people became new gun owners, which led 9.3 million people—3 million of whom are children—to now have guns in their homes.
Violent crime is a multifactorial problem, making it difficult to isolate one factor alone that is responsible for its increase. However, one thing is clear in the vast majority of violent crimes: Guns are the common denominator, not bail.
Current systems of cash bail increases crime, racial injustice, and economic unfairness all at once
Every person should feel safe in their home and communities. While these recent increases in violent crime signal a need for targeted interventions, ignoring the role of guns and undoing much-needed bail reforms will not bring about the desired reduction in violent crime. The reflex to blame the criminal legal 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 not made communities safer.
Assigning cash bail—an amount of money an individual who is arrested must pay to be released pretrial—decreases public safety. For example:
- Cash bail is associated with a 6 percent to 9 percent increase in the rate of being charged with a future crime.
- Pretrial incarceration—which has increased 433 percent from 1970 to 2011, mainly due to the increased reliance on cash bail—has been found to have a “criminogenic effect,” meaning it is a factor that increases crime, not decreases.
While people with money can afford to pay the cost of their bail and obtain release, those without the resources are forced to remain in jail at risk of losing their home, job, or custody of their children. Stark racial disparities exist in the assignment of cash bail, with Black people being 3.6 percent more likely to be assigned bail and receiving bail amounts that are $7,280 greater on average than their white counterparts. As a result of unjust cash bail practices, 80 percent of people in U.S. jails under local authority have not been convicted of a crime.
Case studies show that bail reform is not to blame
Recognizing the public safety and equity consequences of assigning cash bail, jurisdictions across the United States—both entire states and local jurisdictions—have implemented bail reforms to safely decrease reliance on money in pretrial decision-making. Some have eliminated the use of cash bail entirely or for certain crimes. Others prohibited pretrial detention based solely on an inability to afford cash bail. Others have clarified the factors that can be considered when determining bail. Below are four examples of bail reforms that resulted in stable pretrial rearrest rates before and after reform.
The New Jersey legislature virtually eliminated cash bail in 2017 and significantly decreased rates of pretrial incarceration through a combination of reforms in the Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act.
- 99.6 percent of released individuals remained arrest-free for a serious offense before and after bail reform (2017–2019)
- 86.3 percent of released individuals remained arrest-free both before and after bail reform (2017–2019)
- 19 people were assigned bail in New Jersey in 2020
- New Jersey saw a 5 percent smaller increase in homicides than the national average in 2020. New Jersey’s overall violent crime rate in 2020 decreased by 5.5 percent while the national average increased by 4.7 percent.
New York City
The New York state legislature implemented legislation in 2020 that prohibited the assignment of cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies; required judges to consider an individual’s ability to pay before assigning cash bail; and required individuals be given at least three options for making bail. Just three months after the implementation, another law rolled back many of the reforms by making more charges eligible for bail and allowing a broader category of individuals to be incarcerated pretrial.
- 95 percent of released individuals remained arrest-free before reform (January 2019)
- 96 percent of released individuals remained arrest-free after reform (January 2020 and December 2021)
- 99 percent of released individuals remained arrest-free for a violent felony (January 2019, January 2020, December 2021)
Cook County, Illinois
The Circuit Court of Cook County issued General Order 18.8A (GO18.8A) in 2017, which created a presumption of release without monetary bail for those eligible for release and required monetary bail amounts to be affordable, if assigned.
- 31 percent more people were released on recognizance after reform
- 4 percent increase in pretrial release rates after reform
- There was no change in the rates of pretrial rearrest before and after reform: 83 percent of released individuals remained arrest-free upon release
- 97 percent of released individuals remained arrest-free for a violent crime before and after reform
There is a dearth of information linking bail reform to violent crime increases taking place in the United States, while there is tremendous evidence demonstrating gun violence is the key driver of violent crime. While gun violence has increased in jurisdictions across the country—regardless of their bail setting practices—pretrial rearrest rates in bail reform jurisdictions have remained steady. In addition, no jurisdiction has provided credible evidence that bail reform is responsible for recent increases in violent events. Bail reform makes individuals and communities safer, saves taxpayer dollars, and promotes equity and justice. While no factor alone caused recent increases in violent crime, one thing is clear: Violent crime is being driven by guns rather than bail reform.
*Authors’ note: Information from 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 accessed May 2022).
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