Treating cops like suspects and lawbreakers as victims is a bad deal for taxpayers and especially for the poor.
Last year, 327 career criminals were responsible for 30% of New York City’s 22,000 shoplifting arrests, according to the New York City Police Department. “And guess what,” said the exasperated NYPD official who announced the findings at a press conference last week. “Two hundred thirty-five of them—so 235 out of 327—are walking around the streets of New York right now.”
Thanks to bail-reform legislation enacted by lawmakers in Albany (and other state capitals) in recent years, most shoplifting suspects are protected from pretrial detention, and judges aren’t permitted to consider a defendant’s danger to the community. This misguided leniency has hurt morale among police officers, who risk life and limb catching bad guys only to see them cut loose within hours of being arrested. It can also lead to more civilians taking matters into their own hands. Last weekend, a District of Columbia resident shot and killed a 13-year-old after witnessing the boy and other youths breaking into cars at 4 a.m.
There’s little doubt that these policies, promoted in the name of social justice for the poor, result in more crimes being committed by people who otherwise would be behind bars. A study by two professors at the University of Utah, Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles, concluded that “after more generous release procedures were put in place, the number of released defendants charged with committing new crimes increased by 45%.” Proponents insist that only “low-level” and “nonviolent” offenders can take advantage of these reforms, but the study found that “the number of pre-trial releases charged with committing new violent crimes increased by an estimated 33%.” Shoplifters don’t always stick to shoplifting.
Critics of bail reform understandably tend to focus on the increased threat to public safety, but the economic costs of crime are no less significant. A national survey of large businesses showed that retailers recorded nearly $100 billion in thefts in 2022, up more than 26% from the previous year. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon recently told CNBC that the rise in shoplifting could lead to higher prices and even store closures.
Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer, and it’s known for locating its big-box stores in depressed areas that need well-paying jobs and low-price products. Social-justice advocates who want to make it harder to lock up repeat offenders are inadvertently raising costs and harming job prospects for law-abiding members of our most vulnerable communities.
Cost-benefit analyses of addressing violent crime deserve more attention than they usually receive. Beyond the loss of lives that can’t be replaced, there is the matter of treating the wounded and repairing the carnage. Between 2010 and 2020, hospital costs for shooting victims alone in New York City totaled $469 million, according to a December report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Some 70% of that bill was footed not only by local taxpayers but also through federal taxes, via Medicaid and Medicare. A researcher at John Jay told the New York Post: “People should not delude themselves into thinking that if they live in a rural farm community, they don’t have to worry about urban gun violence—because they are paying for that.”
Those who want to defund the police and drastically reduce the size of the prison population complain that states tend to spend more money per inmate than per pupil. But the relevant comparison is between the costs of incarceration and costs of letting lawbreakers run rampant in society.
A 2021 paper published by the University of Chicago’s Journal of Law and Economics put annual spending on policing and corrections at about $250 billion. Meanwhile, a study released the same year by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation “conservatively estimated” that the yearly cost of personal and property crimes in the U.S. is $2.6 trillion. By that comparison, it’s hard to conclude that we spend too much money on law enforcement.
What’s even harder is putting a price on the psychic burden of crime—the constant fear that you or a loved one will become a victim in neighborhoods where street gangs are in charge and gunshots are a familiar sound. Tying the hands of police, prosecutors and judges doesn’t help the poor, who are the most likely victims of the criminals being coddled. Most poor people are law-abiding, and they don’t deserve to be dismissed as an afterthought by social-justice advocates and their allies on the political left. Progressive policies that treat lawbreakers like victims and cops like suspects aren’t only counterproductive but expensive. And some people will wind up paying with their lives.
… With political protests, crime and personal choices hovering at the edge of madness, perhaps it’s time to revisit the ‘Broken Windows’ policing approach pioneered in the 1990s.
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Appeared in the January 11, 2023, print edition as ‘The Economic and Human Costs of Protecting Criminals’.