There’s a concept in psychotherapy called supporting self-efficacy. It’s a core strategy to help people reach their goals: You find something positive the person did, no matter how big or small, and you call attention to it, enabling them to see that they can indeed make progress. You catch them doing something right.
Too often in civic life, especially in the realm of criminal justice and public safety, we do the opposite, focusing on failures and setbacks. There are plenty to choose from. When deadly instances of police use of force and mass shootings at schools and malls have become weekly tragedies, it’s easy to feel a sense of futility.
But the data tell a more hopeful story. As a new dashboard of crime and justice trends from the Council on Criminal Justice shows, amid the agony, there is also headway.
From arrests to incarceration to violent crimes
Let’s start with arrests. In the mid-1990s, police arrested more than 15 million people a year. By 2019, arrests had dropped by a third, to about 10 million, and they fell even further during the pandemic.
The U.S. incarceration rate remains among the highest in the world, but it, too, has declined, falling from its peak of more than 1 in every 100 adults in 2008 to 1 in 147 in 2021, a decline of a third. That translates to about a half million fewer people behind bars on any given day.
What about recidivism, the rate at which people on parole are sent back to prison for committing new crimes or violating the rules of their release? That has dropped as well. The three-year prison return rate – the most commonly used measure – fell from 50% among people released from state prisons in 2005 to 39% among those released in 2012.
There’s more. In juvenile justice, the number of youth removed from their homes for delinquency has plummeted by two-thirds, from more than 100,000 in 2000 to fewer than 37,000 in 2019.
And while troubling racial disparities in imprisonment persist, we’ve also seen some progress here. From 2000 to 2020, the disparity between Black and white adults in state prisons fell by 40%, from 8-to-1 to 5-to-1, and for drug offenses, it shrank by 75%.
Drug decriminalization isn’t working: Oregon voters chose a different approach toward drug use. It was never going to work.
Black women remain nearly twice as likely to be held in prison as white women, but they were over five times more likely at the turn of the century.
Taken together, the overall “footprint” of the justice system has shrunk substantially. In 2008, The Pew Charitable Trusts found that a whopping 1 out of every 31 American adults was in prison or jail or on probation or parole. According to new data from the Justice Department, that rate of correctional control had dropped to 1 in 48 by the end of 2021, a decline of a third.
Crime remains a serious and urgent concern. During the early days of the pandemic, as protests against police killings spread and gun sales spiked, homicide and other violent crimes rose. As troubling as these recent increases are, it’s important to recognize that they occurred in the wake of significant improvements in safety.
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Even after three years of increases, the rate of reported violent crime in America is half what it was at its peak in 1991, while burglaries and other property crimes are 63% lower than its peak in 1980.
And the most recent data shows murder and other trend lines bending back down.
Study the good news as well as the bad on criminal justice
All of this long-term progress didn’t just happen. While the exact mechanisms aren’t clearly understood, some of it certainly is borne of bipartisan changes to penal codes; court orders and public demands to curb overly aggressive and biased policing tactics; improvements in rehabilitation programs; and other instances in which government and the legal system worked as they should.
Despite these gains, the shrinking criminal justice footprint is rarely acknowledged or discussed, leaving everyday Americans to conclude that nothing is improving.
Do the math on school shootings: With another school year, should parents worry about shootings? The math says no.
Why the silence? One chief reason is that many fear a “things are getting better” narrative will suck steam out of the engines of reform.
That’s understandable, but we ignore progress at our peril.
Pessimism leads to defeatist attitudes and clouds sober analysis of what is and isn’t working. It chases away elected officials, candidates and philanthropists who don’t want to hitch their wagons to perpetually losing causes. It burns out talented leaders and staff. And it feeds a cycle of cynicism that sows deeper and deeper distrust of the criminal justice system, of American institutions and of democracy itself.
It’s crucial to face our ugly history. Justice demands that we identify and fix our problems. But to accelerate America’s march toward a safer and more just society, we also must recognize, examine and learn from what’s gone right.
Adam Gelb is president and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank and invitational membership organization building consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Crime data is not all bad news. Here’s good news on criminal justice
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