Progressives can’t solve the problem because they won’t abandon the practices that cause it.
The violent crime surge was preventable. It was caused by progressive politicians reverting to the same reckless revolving-door policies that during the 1960s and ’70s produced the greatest tsunami of violent crime in American history. We reversed that earlier crime wave with the tough anticrime measures adopted during the Reagan-Bush era. We can stop this one as well.
Studies have repeatedly shown that most predatory crime is committed by a small, hard-core group of habitual offenders. They are a tiny fraction of the population—I estimate roughly 1%—but are responsible for between half and two-thirds of predatory violent crime. Each of these offenders can be expected to commit scores, even hundreds, of crimes a year, frequently while on bail, probation or parole. The only time they aren’t committing crimes is when they’re in prison. For this group, the likelihood of reoffending usually doesn’t recede until they reach their late 30s.
The only way to reduce violent crime appreciably is to keep this cohort off the streets. We know with certainty that for each of these criminals held in prison, there are hundreds of people who aren’t being victimized. This “incapacitation” strategy requires laws, like those in the federal system, that allow judges to detain repeat offenders before trial when they pose a danger to the community, and that impose tough sentences on repeat violent offenders.
History shows this strategy works. Before 1960, violent crime in the U.S. was modest and stable. In the early ’60s, however, liberal reformers pushed to turn state justice systems into revolving doors, with violent offenders quickly released on parole or probation. Predictably, violent crime exploded, going from 160 crimes per 100,000 population in 1960 to 758 per 100,000 in 1991.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration and several large states started locking up violent offenders, and the nation’s prison population rose from about 300,000 to almost 700,000. This radically flattened the rate of violent crime, which rose only 11% during the ’80s. By 1991, when I first became attorney general, the revolving door was in overdrive in many states. Nationally, murderers served less than six years on average; the average time served for rape was three years. In Texas, offenders typically served only 15% of their sentences. Five of 8 felons released from prison were arrested for new crimes within three years.
The George H.W. Bush administration initiated the doubling of federal prison capacity, pushed states to do likewise, and launched a broad movement to toughen up state justice systems. It also greatly expanded joint federal, state and local task forces to target the worst violent criminals for stiff sentences under federal gun, gang and drug-trafficking laws.
The results of these policies were stunning. By 1992, as more violent offenders were incarcerated, the trajectory of violent crime started falling for the first time in decades. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush continued these policies, and from 1991 to 2013, the total prison population in the U.S. doubled—from roughly 800,000 to 1.6 million. At the same time, violent crime plummeted, dropping for 23 years. By 2014 it had been cut in half—to a level not seen since 1970—and homicides of black victims were down by about 5,000 a year.
Nevertheless, progressives complained: Why were we imprisoning record numbers when crime was receding? They missed the point. Crime was dropping precisely because we were keeping violent criminals in prison. Progressives call this “mass incarceration,” but their rhetoric is deceptive. It implies people are being locked up indiscriminately. On the contrary, incapacitation is a precision strategy. It targets and uses prison space primarily for violent criminals who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
Unfortunately, 23 years of successful crime reduction came to an end with the resurgence of progressive policies in the Obama administration, which saw a return to the revolving door and the demonization of police. Incarceration rates started falling again, and by 2014 crime rates were headed back up. This reversal was temporarily halted by the Trump administration, which succeeded in driving violent crime down until the summer of 2020. It started to climb in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter riots. It continues to rise without any end in sight.
Progressives have no solution. As in the ’60s, they call for more social spending to address the supposed “root causes” of violent crime. But even if we knew how to address the root causes effectively, which we don’t, implementing the solution would take decades. People are entitled to protection now. Even the best-designed social programs have no chance of success in neighborhoods strangled by violence and fear. Law and order is a prerequisite for social progress.
Progressives say we can’t afford to keep violent predators in prison. On the contrary, we can’t afford not to. A 1992 Justice Department report, “The Case for More Incarceration,” showed that the cost of keeping a chronic violent criminal in prison is small compared with the costs of letting him roam the streets.
In other contexts, we spend huge amounts to reduce the risk of premature death or injury to members of the public, including billions on highway safety or environmental quality. If we started using the same cost-benefit analysis for law enforcement, we would be spending many times more than we do today on police and corrections.
The very purpose of government is to secure a peaceful society—making life safe for law-abiding citizens by protecting them from violent predators. Progressive politicians are doing the opposite, blighting the lives of the law-abiding with their warped solicitude for the criminal few. We can stop the swelling crime wave only by rejecting these politicians and their destructive policies. It is time for a return to sanity.
Mr. Barr is a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute. He served as U.S. attorney general, 1991-93 and 2019-20.
Appeared in the October 27, 2022, print edition as ‘Rising Crime Rates Are a Policy Choice’