March 25, 2021 Editor

Why America’s Great Crime Decline Is Over

Even before the recent mass shootings, violent crime was surging to its highest rate in 30 years. Patrick Sharkey illuminates what’s happening.

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WN: The “new model” called for in the interview highlighted below is ever one of the “Beloved Community.” Brutal, violent response to crime is in itself the greater crime; one that has short-term benefits, but massive long term harms. I argue this at length in a recently published paper, Restorative Justice: Peacemaking Not Warmaking; Transformative Justice: Penal Abolitionism Not Prison Reform, for The Kenarchy Journal, a fairly new British Journal pioneered by Roger Mitchell, you may learn about by clicking on its name.


Americans are experiencing a crime wave unlike anything we’ve seen this century. After decades of decline, shootings have surged in the past few years. In 2020, gun deaths reached their highest point in U.S. history in the midst of a pandemic. In 2021, although researchers can’t yet say anything definite about overall crime, shooting incidents appear to be on the rise in many places. We have also already witnessed several mass shootings, including the murder of spa and massage workers in the Atlanta area and a grocery-store massacre in Boulder, Colorado. Americans can no longer say, as we could 10 years ago, that we are living in the safest time in our nation’s history.

Why crime rises and falls is a devilishly complicated question. Few people have thought more deeply about it than Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton University. While others reach for easy solutions and simplistic slogans, Sharkey embraces complexity and uncertainty. In his 2018 book, Uneasy Peace, Sharkey argued that intensive and often aggressive policing and incarceration policies probably helped reduce crime in the past few decades, to the great benefit of low-income neighborhoods. But rather than glorify these policies, he argued that often they have involved brutal policing strategies that could provoke a backlash among the public—hence the “uneasy” nature of the peace.

This thesis has proved doubly prescient in the past year. Sharkey anticipated both the summer of anti-police protests and the possibility that souring police-civilian relations would contribute to an increase in violent crime.

This week I spoke with Sharkey about his thoughts on the 2020 crime surge. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity; statistical context from a follow-up email is in italics.

Thompson: The subtitle of your book Uneasy Peace is The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. Is it safe to say that the “great crime decline” has come to an end?

Sharkey: I would say it is very clearly paused. What remains to be seen is just how anomalous last year was. There’s a possibility that this was just a year when social life was completely destabilized in so many ways, and that resulted in a huge surge of violence that was temporary. That’s the hope.

Sharkey: That’s right. In my book I argued that the drop in violence had all these benefits, but it was unsustainable. And it was unsustainable because we were reliant on a model of responding to violence and urban inequality through brute force and punishment and dependence on prisons and the police to respond to every challenge that arises when poverty is concentrated.

As long as that model is still in place, you can produce lower levels of violence. But you will also produce staggering levels of harm. That harm became very visible in the last five years and, in particular, after [the killing of] George Floyd.

Thompson: Some people say that the simplest way to reduce crime will be to re-surge police presence in violent areas. I’ve called for “unbundling” police services and paying a broader group of local government and state employees to work with the homeless or handle domestic disputes. How do you think we should begin to reverse the rise in crime?

Sharkey: These surges in violence came from an old model of policing. In this old model, police respond to violence with brute force. And this can reduce violence. But it comes with these costs that don’t in the long run create safe, strong, or stable communities. We shouldn’t reach back for the old model and forget that the old model actually came with all this resentment and harm. This is our wake-up call. We need a new model.

Please click on: US Crime Decline Over

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.