When Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy went before the City Council budget committee last week, he came prepared with an answer to the pronounced uptick in shootings and murders in recent months: stricter sentences for gun offenders. It’s a refrain he has sung often during his four-and-a-half years as Chicago’s top cop.
The members of the City Council—including many of the black aldermen who a day earlier had called for McCarthy’s resignation—wanted something more immediate. Several aldermen asked McCarthy why his officers weren’t making more arrests for “quality of life” crimes, like public drunkenness, loitering and selling loose cigarettes. Some even directly referenced the “broken-windows” theory of policing—that cracking down on “quality of life” crimes will deter more serious crime.
Here’s the truth: Research shows that neither harsher gun penalties nor broken-windows policing are effective at reducing gun violence.
The Reporter read up on the research in an effort to correct the myths propelled by both the Police Department and the City Council. Here’s what we found:
Harsher sentences don’t deter crime
According to the deterrence theory, if criminals think they will serve hefty time for, say, possession of an illegal gun, they will be less likely to carry that gun, which will lead to less gun violence. But a sizeable amount of research says that simply isn’t the case.
Michael Tonry, a law professor and director of the Institute on Crime and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, studied years of research on the deterrent effects of various crime policies. He concluded that there is “no credible evidence” linking increased penalties to deterrent effects.
“Policy makers would like to believe that penalties and penalty increases deter because those beliefs provide a basis for trying to do something about troubling social problems,” he wrote in a 2008 paper. “The difficulty is that mistaken beliefs in deterrence may lead to adoption of seriously mistaken policies.”
There is usually another explanation for reductions in crime
Proponents of harsher sentences for gun crimes often point to examples of sentence enhancement laws in other cities that they say led to a drop in violent crime. For instance, a widely heralded program in the late 1990s in Richmond, Va., called Project Exile, made certain gun offenses federal rather than state crimes, which generally led to harsher sentences. It became a national model when proponents pointed to a 40 percent reduction in gun homicides after it was implemented.
However, Jens Ludwig, co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, and Steven Raphael, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, co-wrote a study that showed the drop in gun homicides in Richmond was already happening before Project Exile was implemented, following larger national trends of decreased gun violence over that period.
“The reduction in Richmond’s gun homicide rates surrounding the implementation of Project Exile was not unusual, and … almost all of the observed decrease probably would have occurred even in the absence of the program,” they wrote.
Looking for the answer in New York? You won’t find it.
A lot of research looks to the incredible 80-percent drop in the murder rate in New York City from 1990 to 2012 for answers to how to reduce violent crime. (McCarthy, who worked his way up to deputy commissioner in the New York City Police Department before leaving in 2006, also likes to reference this period as proof that his proposals work.)
McCarthy and others point to an increase in sentences for illegal gun possession—from a one-year minimum to three-and-a-half years—as one cause for the drop in homicides. But researchers like Franklin Zimring, a Berkeley law professor who wrote a book on New York’s crime decline, point out that 90 percent of the reduction in homicides had already taken place by 2006, when the mandatory minimums for gun crimes went into effect.
Likewise, proponents of broken windows look to New York, where Police Commissioner Bill Bratton made it a central focus of his crime-reduction strategy in the mid-1990s. The theory was introduced in a 1982 article in “The Atlantic” by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who argued that police officers could discourage more serious crimes if they eliminated visible signs of minor crime and disorder, like the broken windows for which the policy is named.
But a 2006 study by Ludwig and Bernard Harcourt, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, found “no empirical evidence to support the view that shifting police towards minor disorder offenses would improve the efficiency of police spending and reduce violent crime.”
Broken-windows disproportionately affects communities of color
One of the main tools of broken-windows policing in New York was “Stop, Question and Frisk,” the much-criticized practice of stopping individuals who police suspect are either committing a crime (i.e., carrying an illegal weapon) or might commit a crime.
A 2009 study found that stop and frisk was concentrated in minority communities and also was ineffective.
In a time of decreasing crime rates overall in New York City, the number of stops and frisks rose 500 percent, while their efficiency—the number of stops that resulted in an arrest—dropped by 50 percent.
According to the authors, a law professor, a sociologist, and two criminologists, stop and frisk is not only inefficient, but also detrimental to the relationship between communities of color and police officers, which makes future policing more difficult.
Illinois has tried harsher penalties before—it didn’t work
In 2013, McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported a state bill, which ultimately failed, that would have increased sentences for illegal gun possession and required that those convicted serve 85 percent of their sentence.
But even before that bill, the Illinois legislature took steps to enhance the penalties for gun crimes.
In 2000, Illinois created a new category of gun crime, aggravated unlawful use of a weapon (UUW), which is a Class 4 felony. In 2006, the legislature made a second or subsequent aggravated UUW and a UUW by a felon Class 2 felonies, a higher level crime with harsher penalties. And in 2011 and 2012, Illinois eliminated probation for aggravated UUW if the gun is loaded and for all UUWs by a felon.
In 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the part of the aggravated UUW law that enhanced the sentence if a person had a gun loaded and accessible was unconstitutional.
A study by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council—a state agency that researches proposed sentencing laws—found that murders and other violent offenses involving a gun dropped in Chicago from 2006 to 2012, during the period when the sentencing enhancements went into effect. But violent crime fell less after the sentence enhancements were put into place than they did before, calling into question whether the enhancements made any difference at all—or perhaps even decreased the effectiveness of other crime-prevention efforts.
The study also found that the recidivism rate for offenders sentenced under the enhanced statutes did not change, indicating that the penalties were not effective deterrents, even for those who had already been subjected to them.
So what works?
“Multi-dimensional, community-based approaches” to gun violence reduction are more effective than limited interventions, according to a 2009 meta-analysis of 29 research studies. The researchers found that programs that provide support to offenders, along with punishment, had more success than those which took a “purely punitive approach.”
Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, in which community members, churches, police and probation officers worked together to identify youth gang members and offer them alternatives to violence, is credited with a 72 percent reduction in homicides there in the mid-1990s. The youth were also told that gun violence would carry immediate repercussions. The Boston initiative is not the same as the Chicago-based Ceasefire program.
Another program, Operation Eiger in Baton Rouge, La., was shown to decrease both recidivism and neighborhood-level crime. The program used a three-pronged approach to prosecute gun crimes, provide treatment for youth on probation for gun offenses and mentor those who were at risk of committing gun crimes.
The bottom line: The most effective approaches are usually the ones that don’t make for quick soundbites, whether at a news conference or a City Council meeting.