As violent crime rises in Portland and across the country, should progressive reforms be the cause?


Violent crime is Portland’s summer story. News broadcasts and newspaper headlines are dominated by a recent pair of unprovoked attacks: the racist assault of a Japanese-American family over the July 4 holiday weekend and the murder last week of 82-year-old Oregon State University professor assaulted at bus stop. Both assaults were allegedly committed by men living on the street.

Violent crime rates are rising across the country and the trend is making people feel unsafe in their cities and, by extension, threatening progressive efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Portland and major cities around the world. country.

But are progressive reforms and militant politicians to blame for the latest wave of crime? This question was asked by a timely report published last Tuesday by researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Their conclusion: There is simply not enough evidence to link increased violence to progressive policies. “We see narratives about crime and public safety being used to roll back the gains of the reform movement, largely without an evidence base,” Ames Grawert, report author and senior counsel at the Brennan Center, told WW.

The problem is real: the country’s murder rate has risen nearly 30% in 2020 alone, the report notes. In Chicago, murders were up 57% over the previous year. In Portland, there was an 83% increase in homicides.

But, Grawert said, it’s “not a blue state problem.” Pandemic-fueled crime wave hits red and blue states, progressive cities and conservative rural counties. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific cause, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis, but “evidence points to broad national causes behind the rise in crime.”

In addition, violent crime is on the rise, but far from the peaks seen in the 1980s and 1990s, when tough on crime policies were in vogue. And, according to the report, studies attempting to link rising crime to police withdrawals following mass protests have not stood up to scrutiny.

Grawert and his co-author Noah Kim are gathering research across the country to make their case, but Portland researchers have come to similar conclusions.

Chris Campbell, a PSU professor who has studied Oregon’s criminal justice system extensively, criticized tackling violent crime with more punitive policies. “We’ve never seen it actually work to reduce crime,” he said, unless it’s accompanied by significant investment in social services.

Yet the electorate’s appetite for criminal justice reform appears to be fading. New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently reversed aspects of major bail reform legislation passed in the state in 2019. And in San Francisco, a progressive district attorney was ousted from office. following backlash over the city’s lack of progress in addressing persistent low-level crime.

Grawert offered some policy suggestions, but little optimism. He said tougher gun control laws were one way to solve the problem, but he stressed the need for major reinvestments in social services.

But, he said, “I fear that we are losing our momentum to make this kind of structural change in the country.”


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