Deterring crime by bringing criminals to justice, keeping dangerous criminals off the streets, and stopping crimes in progress when possible, are central functions of government. By physically attacking others or damaging or stealing their property, criminals impose fear, pain, and loss on others. Sometimes they cause extreme suffering, terror, or death. So when crime rates go up, as they have in Colorado, that rightly sparks concern.
Yet fighting crime is not the only value. If it were, we would repeal the Bill of Rights and let government censor speech that might encourage crime, ban guns because they can be used to commit crimes, search people and their homes without a warrant, treat suspects harshly and hold them indefinitely, try people repeatedly, force defendants to testify against themselves, revoke jury trials, and impose cruel and unusual punishments.
So we should say that we want government to fight crime consistent with people’s rights. If government agents violate people’s rights in the name of fighting crime, then, especially in severe cases, those agents become the criminals, in fact if not in law. In some cases (the drug war, asset forfeiture) people fiercely debate whether a given policy or practice is appropriate or rights-violating; I tend toward the civil libertarian side. I’m all for being “tough on crime” so long as we remain just on crime.
We also want government to fight crime effectively. Resources are limited, and we want government to do the best it can to curb crime within a reasonable budget. Within those guidelines, let’s talk about crime in Colorado and what to do about it.
The causes of crime are complex, yet stories about crime are easy to tell. Often the story a given person wants to tell lines up with the person’s broader ideological commitments, so we should try to remain aware of biases and oversimplifications. We can hope that different people at least grasp parts of the elephant, although some accounts might be closer to the truth than others.
Some stories focus on economic distress. Denver District Attorney Beth McCann “believes that the real drivers to our current crime spike are the economic and societal hardships from COVID, the prevalence of guns in our community, the devastation wrought by the opioid epidemic, and the lack of adequate mental health and substance abuse treatment,” her communications director told Fox31.
Newsline columnist Quentin Young blames inadequate Progressive gains. He wants government “investment in equitable access to socioeconomic opportunity and security.” He quotes the Vera Institute of Justice that crime can be curbed partly by addressing “unstable housing, poverty, limited educational opportunities, poor health, and inadequate access to services.” Young claims that inadequate K–12 funding, “abysmal” access to “behavioral health services,” the high “cost of housing,” and homelessness “surely factor into the state’s crime rates.” The explanations of McCann and Young strike me as overbroad and ideological, though there’s probably something to the hardship explanation.
The libertarian crime columnist Radley Balko suggests something “that might explain at least part of the [nationwide] surge in murders last year: There were fewer witnesses” as people “retreated from public spaces” during the pandemic. He points out, “The other major category to increase last year was vehicle theft, a crime you’d expect to go up with fewer people on the streets.”
We find a completely different story in a report by the conservative Common Sense Institute (CSI) coauthored by former district attorneys George Brauchler and Mitch Morrissey with Chris Brown and Alexa Eastburg. Basically this report blames various criminal justice reforms implemented by Colorado Democrats: “The trends across bond practices, parole rates, and incarceration levels, all point to a system tipping further away from accountability.” (Morrissey is a Democrat while Brauchler is a prominent Republican, but DAs often line up with policies perceived as “tough on crime” regardless of party affiliation.)
Crime on the upswing
Whatever you think of its explanation of the cause (we’ll get back to that), the report offers helpful and concerning information about crime trends in Colorado. Notably, the report reveals, while property crime decreased nationally from 2011 to 2020, it went up in Colorado. Motor vehicle theft skyrocketed in Colorado; it also went up a bit nationally during the pandemic.
“Colorado’s violent crime rate in 2020 was 35% higher than 2011; nationally the rate grew only 3%. The 2020 murder rate was 106% higher than in 2011. The rape rate was 9% higher, with assault up 40%,” the report states. The report estimates $8.5 billion in “tangible” costs of crime in 2020 plus an additional $19 billion in “victim suffering, reduced quality of life, and other societal costs.”
We can question why the report picks the years it does. Axios published a chart showing the longer-term rate of violent crimes per 100,000 people, and it too shows Colorado trends heading up in recent years and surpassing the national numbers. It also shows that violent crime remains a lot lower than it was in the early ’90s. Nationally, the figure fell from 758.2 in 1991 to 398.5 in 2020. In Colorado, the rate fell overall from 578.8 in 1992 to 423.1 in 2020. Violent crime in Colorado is substantially higher now than it was at its low in 2013 at 305.4.
Those looking for a partisan advantage in races for legislature and governor might tread carefully, however. It turns out that Republicans controlled Colorado government (with the governor, the senate, and the house) in four out of six years from 1999 to 2004, when violent crime per capita went up. And Democrats controlled state government in six out of eight years from 2007 to 2014, when violent crime went down. Moreover, since 2011, Republicans have held either the house or the senate for six of those years, although Democrats gained full control again in 2019. A lesson I would draw from this is that state crime stats often have more to do with national and local trends than with state policy.
Public policy impact on crime
The CSI report plausibly blames a number of specific local and state policies for part of the crime spike, although without attempting to quantify the effect of a given policy. Let’s take a look.
Denver has dramatically increased its use of personal recognizance bonds and dollar bonds in recent years. The idea here is that, rather than hold people in custody to await trial, the courts cut people loose before trial. The rationale for liberal bonding is that expensive bonds mostly hurt the poor, who cannot afford them. Plus, you know, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s unclear to me whether more people were released on bond specifically because of the pandemic, to mitigate Covid spread in the jails. It’s pretty plausible that unnecessarily exposing people to Covid especially when they have not been convicted of any crime is a nontrivial rights-violation.
I’ll point out here that the only options are not let people languish in jail before trial or let potentially dangerous people roam the streets. A better alternative is to speed up trials. If there’s hardly any time between an arrest and a trial, the problem dissipates. Of course that’s harder to accomplish during a pandemic. But as the pandemic subsides, we should prioritize a well-functioning court system. The Sixth Amendment, after all, guarantees “a speedy and public trial.”
It would be nice to know what effect the liberal bonding policies had on crime. To know this, we’d have to look into whether the particular people bonded out actually committed crimes, and how many.
The CSI report also blames a declining prison and jail population for the rise in crime. The report blames “executive orders requir[ing] a reduction in the prison population.” Legislative Council, on the other hand, blames abnormal pandemic “court operations” for the recent decline. Anyway, it’s plausible that letting criminals out of prison or failing to put criminals in prison would increase crime, but again I’d like to see more-specific evidence.
I would caution against a “screw the criminals” attitude with respect to infectious diseases. When the state incarcerates a person, the state has a moral and legal responsibility to keep the person reasonably safe. Of course, the best policy is not to let dangerous people roam the streets but to figure out how to keep them safe in confinement.
Another potential problem: “Parole rates for more serious felonies have increased.” I’m not sure what to think about this. Perhaps we should focus on imposing just sentences at the outset and minimize the use of parole. Or maybe parole plays an important role in encouraging prisoners to reform, but it’s been overused. Regardless, the goal should be to achieve reasonable criminal sentences and try to figure out how to keep people from reoffending after they are released. That’s not easy.
Regarding motor vehicle thefts, that seems like it should be a tractable problem. Catch the jokers stealing cars and put them in prison. The CSI report quotes the Colorado Auto Theft Intelligence Coordination Center that suspected car thieves “operated with virtual impunity.” It’s unclear to me whether this is a problem more with policing or with the courts. Anyway, hopefully as the pandemic recedes, tackling this problem will become a priority.
The upshot is that the CSI report identifies some likely contributors to crime increases. Although curbing crime is hard, we can address some of the problems at hand by speeding up trials, keeping dangerous people off the streets consistent with just sentences, and dropping the hammer on car thieves. I would point out that doing those things is compatible with sensible criminal justice reform. It is possible and desirable to be both tough and just on crime while taking civil liberties seriously.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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