Insights > Preventing and Prosecuting Crimes

Preventing and Prosecuting Crimes

This series examines the human and economic impacts of crimes and how stakeholders across jurisdictions and disciplines can collaborate to advance safety and justice.

Blessed are the peacemakers and those who prevent and lower the impacts of crimes. Each crime is different, and all crimes affect people and organizations in ways that are both challenging and important to measure. Leaders, advocates, and specialists from governments, courts, jails, neighborhoods, health care systems, social services, and volunteer communities can work collaboratively to improve safety and justice.

Crimes often go unreported, and reporting methods must evolve within and across jurisdictions, agencies, and communities. A high percentage of criminal victimizations are not reported to law enforcement at all. This includes two-thirds of sexual violence victimizations, six out of 10 assaults, and about half of all robberies. When victims or witnesses are unwilling or unable to report a crime, governments cannot effectively ensure safety or serve justice. As such, a key factor of police-community trust depends on victims and witnesses reporting crimes and supporting prosecutions. Also, as people interact online more frequently, technology-enabled crimes threaten to make a chasm of the current gap between crime victimization and crime reporting. To help victims, federal, state, and local law enforcement must collaborate ever more closely to counteract crimes that inherently disregard borders.

Advancements like the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) help update and align crime reporting with reality by creating new categories such as identity theft and computer hacking. This parallels recent FBI-led efforts to better account for cargo theft, hate crimes, and other victimizations that are worthy of tracking across jurisdictions (and do not fit neatly into the “Part I” and “Part II” categories that first standardized municipal crime reporting in 1929 such as murder, theft, arson, or burglary). NIBRS also has updated ways to track and analyze details about evidence, parties involved, and relevant connections.  This is important because many crimes cross jurisdictions, and laws are enforced by a mosaic of more than 18,000 (mostly local) law enforcement agencies, plus a patchwork of local, state, and national entities oversee matters of prosecution, prison, parole, and probation.

Among these entities, it is challenging to share, manage, and use law enforcement information and intelligence, which mostly stem from constitutionally protected networks that are privately owned and operated. Government and private sector entities that in part came together after 9/11 to counter terrorism also continue to unite in task forces, fusion centers, and other forms of public-private partnerships; these efforts break down siloes in countering guns, gangs, and drug trafficking organizations.

As criminal-enabling technologies emerge (such as 3D-printed “ghost guns” or money laundering through peer-to-peer, blockchain, and dark web networks), the footrace continues between those motivated and equipped to do good or harm.

The human impacts and economic costs of crimes must be considered realistically and holistically. Even when actionable information exists, crime reports remain indicators of the human impacts of crimes. These impacts range from inconveniences to immeasurable tragedies for crime victims and often perpetual negative cycles for offenders. Victims of assault, sexual violence, theft, and other crimes often become offenders later in life. Likewise, a study showed that children exposed to real or simulated violence are more likely to commit violent acts in their lifetimes.

Federal, state, and local agencies spend an estimated $300 billion a year on policing, courts, and jails. Additional crime-related emergency medical services, physical, and mental health treatments cost governments tens of billions of dollars. Some crime-related calculations show that lost productivity, pain, suffering, and lower quality of life can collectively cost the US economy trillions of dollars.

Research by Ted Miller also estimates the tangible cost of a single homicide at $2.7 million and the intangible costs at $5.2 million, for a total of $152 billion per year in the United States (2017). By the same estimates, more frequent criminal incidents have markedly higher aggregate costs to society to include sexual violence, robbery, and fraud. Included in Miller’s astounding estimated impact of $2.6 trillion per year or 15% of US GDP, one year of crimes cost victims nearly 11 million “quality-of-life years” annually. Note the annual figures exclude the cost of drug overdoses, a scourge that ends the lives of approximately four-and-a-half times the number of people a year as do homicides in the United States.

Miller’s study also does not account for costly changes in the residential tax base, tourism, and other revenues related to actual crime or the fear of crime. Though challenging to measure, recent surveys cite crime as a top issue in perceived quality of life within communities, and crime-related perceptions likely reinforce consumer and voter behaviors.

Another relatively hidden impact of crime costs cities billions of dollars for so-called police liability bonds. The interrelationship between such bonds, municipal liability management practices, and police staffing policies and performance must be carefully considered to lawfully curb violence.

As governments work across traditional siloes and systems, modeling the impacts of crimes can help allocate resources and implement programs most productively.

Preventing crimes and mitigating related impacts requires a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency, and public-private effort.  The number of reported crimes have been rising throughout the country, with increases in homicides leading calls for solutions that work. While the pandemic has arguably increased the number and nature of crimes, which may partly be due to the increased time that people spend in residential areas versus commercial districts, it certainly is not the sole driver of criminal victimization or reporting. Pandemic-related influences and other key factors (safety and justice resources, strategies, and their implementation) should continue to be monitored for their effects on crimes, including domestic violence, theft, assault, and narcotics distribution.

Police jurisdictions differ in how they consider, resource, and act on interconnections such as those between guns, drugs, repeat offenses, and the increasingly young ages of offenders. Some are helping at-risk youth avoid crime-related issues with notable programs such as Operation Ceasefire, using a group violence reduction strategy, or other intervention programs led by the Department of Justice. New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams is calling for a joint task force focused on guns and gangs while also recognizing that other factors such as unaddressed dyslexia might correlate with those more likely to carry an illegal gun or join a gang. Multi-disciplinary efforts all have the potential to work in concert to solve problems, such as those intervening in non-fatal shootings, enabling anonymous reporting through systems like CrimeStoppers, and inviting the return of illegal weapons or narcotics through amnesty programs. Likewise, prisoner-focused and addiction recovery programs work to disrupt cycles of recidivism, and multiple agencies and disciplines together are starting to tackle chronic challenges related to victim-offender dynamics. Efforts to improve lighting and upkeep, reimagine blighted buildings, and connect isolated neighborhoods seek to change the environmental conditions of crime and victimization. Though underutilized,  federally organized and state-managed criminal victim compensation funds remain important sources of money for victims who cooperate with law enforcement.

Diverse resources are available to prevent and prosecute crime. While jurisdictions may differ on the crimes they face, how they prevent and prosecute them, and the services they provide to victims and offenders, high-quality resources are available for all of the above. Such resources exist from multiple governments, agencies, non-profits, and the private sector. This primarily includes city and state programs, supplemented through programs administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and increasingly through federal agencies focused on health, labor, and education, and through pandemic relief funding. National non-profits, local police foundations, community groups, chambers of commerce, faith-based groups, and academic institutions also play important roles. The human impacts and economic costs of crimes should be the lenses through which these diverse parties provide the capital, talent, and expertise to prevent and address crime.

Ways to support transformative change include:

  • Enacting constitutionally aligned practices that prioritize justice. Crime prevention, patrol, and investigative practices must comply with the US Constitution (especially the First, Fourth, Eighth, and 14th Amendments, regarding matters of free speech and peaceful assembly, search and seizure, acceptable force and punishment, and equal protection, respectively), and these practices should precisely and assertively make priority cases in concert with prosecutors. States and communities can play important roles complying with the requirements of the Department of Justice and improving practices, systems, and data availability ahead of relatively lengthy and costly reform attempts that occur via consent decrees.
  • Effectively integrating performance-based patrol strategies with the latest technologies and methods. Today’s patrolling strategies should use a workload-based approach and integrate with emergency call systems and other reporting methods, the technical capabilities of real-time crime centers, and problem-oriented policing approaches such as the SARA model. Mayor-level or supervisory crime plans can outline the structures and skills to coordinate these multiple disciplines. Progress can also be made by establishing or deepening relationships and sharing resources at the operational levels.
  • Countering crimes via specialized practices, programs, and technologies. Efforts should address some of the most complex issues related to crime, including at-risk people, illegal firearms, overdoses, and drug trafficking organizations. Through intelligence, preventing and prosecuting crimes depends on better understanding key crime patterns and drivers. Organizations must also advance their capabilities to obtain warrants, seize contraband, produce evidence, and communicate across networks with more skill and purpose than criminal actors.

When preventing and prosecuting crime, organizational culture and metrics matter. The right to live in a safe and orderly environment is fundamental, and communities throughout the nation can advance the common good. Each jurisdiction and agency must develop and enact the strategies, skills, and tools to ensure safety and justice. This starts and ends with the people society seeks to protect from being victims, and success depends on shared efforts and diverse skills.


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