4 Ways to Cut Violent Crime in America

There are specific reforms that will make the U.S. safer. Gun control isn't one of them.

Marking the spot.

Photographer: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

First, the good news -- the crime wave of 2015 and 2016 appears to have been a temporary blip, rather than the beginning of a dangerous new trend. According to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, homicide rates in cities are projected to fall by 2.5 percent this year. Overall, U.S. crime is approaching the lows of 2014, the safest year in recent decades.

But now, the bad news -- despite falling by about half since the early 1990s, violent crime in the U.S. is still very high compared to many other nations:

A World of Danger

Homicides per 100,000 population in 2014

Source: World Bank

Some major countries have it much worse, of course -- Russia’s murder rate is more than twice that of the U.S., and Brazil’s is more than five times as high. But the U.S. is far more violent than countries such as Canada and Australia, not to mention the richer nations of Europe and East Asia. And in certain cities, the problem is acute -- St. Louis has a murder rate more than 13 times the national average, for example, and Baltimore more than 12 times.

So violent crime is still a huge national problem, especially for the poor and disadvantaged Americans who are forced to live in dangerous areas. What can be done to make the U.S. a safer country?

One common answer is gun control. Though prudent measures such as stronger background checks seem wise, I’m not sure large-scale gun control could do that much to reduce crime. There are a lot of guns already in circulation, and as the drug market has shown, illicit guns would continue to flow on the black market even if the Second Amendment were repealed and guns were banned. Furthermore, the relationship between gun ownership and crime might just not be that strong -- Brazil, for example, has only 1/14th the number of guns per person that the U.S. does, but many more murders.

So setting aside the question of gun control, what else can be done? Here are four approaches that should be tried:

No. 1. Lead abatement

This is the easiest and simplest one. A wealth of scientific evidence shows that childhood exposure to lead increases violent behavior in adulthood. The elimination of leaded gasoline probably contributed to the crime drop in the 1990s. 

The U.S. still has two big sources of lead exposure -- aging lead water pipes, and lead paint buried in the soil. Replacing the pipes and cleaning up the ground would be expensive, but the dividends would be huge -- a far less crime-prone populace, and a healthier economy as well.

No. 2. Drug decriminalization

Decriminalization of drug use doesn’t mean legalizing drugs -- people who sell addictive substances like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine would still be jailed. But people who only use drugs wouldn’t be locked up -- instead, they’d be forced to undergo medical treatment and receive counseling to help them kick the drug habit. This is, roughly, the approach Portugal uses.

Beyond the moral concerns -- drug users are victims, and punishing victims is bad -- there are good practical reasons to decriminalize. Treating drug use like a disease instead of a crime is an effective way of getting addicts to cut down, as Portugal has found. That reduces demand for the illegal substances, which cuts into the profits of drug-selling gangs. And that in turn would reduce crime, since a large percent of murders are drug-related. Decriminalization would also reduce the number of Americans entering the prison system.

No. 3. Prison education

Incarceration doesn’t just keep criminals off the street -- it also increases the odds that those who spend time in prison will become lifelong criminals. Convicts have a very difficult time landing a job after they get out. That pushes them back toward a life of crime. In addition, being in prison forges all the wrong kinds of social bonds -- on the inside, your only social circle is made up of criminals.

Some view this as an acceptable cost of deterrence. But prison’s ability to deter crime is dubious at best. First-time criminals can’t even imagine what spending years behind bars is like. And high recidivism rates show that even for repeat offenders, going back to the clink isn’t that scary.

Decriminalizing drug use would reduce the flow of people into the jail and prison systems. But reform of prison itself would also help people transition back into normal society once they get out. Educational programs can give prisoners real-world job skills and prove to employers that prisoners have truly reformed, reducing recidivism by as much as 40 percent. Education and life reform, not harsh retributive punishment, should be the focus of prison life.

No. 4. Community policing

Finally, the way that police protect American cities should be reformed. First, cops should try harder to work with the most dangerous communities to solve and prevent murders, rather than writing these communities off as no-go zones. This is especially important in black communities, where residents may trust police less. “Community policing” is an ill-defined term, but there are strategies that work.

One very simple thing cops can do is to get out of their patrol cars and walk around. High-quality evidence shows that foot patrols cut violent crime. Simply having police around deters criminals, but it also allows communities to have repeated positive interactions with the police, building relationships that cut crime in a number of ways.

These four approaches -- lead abatement, drug decriminalization, prison education and community policing -- could go a long way toward making the U.S. a safe country like Canada or Australia. And they could do it without touching the Second Amendment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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