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Pandemic court closures could be driving high crime rates


It's a question we've come back to repeatedly over the last two years - why is violent crime going up, especially after it went down for so many years and in so many places? Politicians, analysts and advocates have been trading theories and, frankly, barbs over this since the trend began. But new reporting by journalist Alec MacGillis suggests a different idea. It's the courts, specifically court closures that took place due to the pandemic back in 2020. Alec MacGillis covers politics and government for ProPublica. It's a nonprofit investigative news organization. Recently, he reported on two cities - Albuquerque, N.M., and Wichita, Kan. - who differed in when they reopened courts for criminal trials and the effect that that may have had on violent crime. And he's with us now to tell us more about it. Alec MacGillis, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ALEC MACGILLIS: Well, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We've been addressing violent crime from a number of perspectives. You've been writing about this for some time, like from - everything from, like, violence interrupters to public health officials. Your reporting points to court closures. What made you look at that?

MACGILLIS: It was actually - I was having a conversation with someone who works in Washington working on criminal justice issues. And we were talking about various possible causes for this really horrific resurgence of violent crime. And this person mentioned - the first thing that they mentioned right off the bat was the role of court closures, the role that that might have played around the country. And it really kind of hit this nerve with me. It struck me immediately as very intuitive and worth looking into.

Essentially, you know, the notion that if you shut down this major institution, this major civic institution that is - sort of sits at the heart of public order in our daily life, it stands to reason that that's going to have some kind of effect on public safety. And so I decided to look into it more, and I decided that the best way to look at it was to actually go to a couple of places around the country that took very different approaches to this question.

MARTIN: So you picked Albuquerque, N.M., and Wichita, Kan. What was the problem that each city faced, and how did they respond differently?

MACGILLIS: Well, both places, both cities were experiencing in the early months of the pandemic what a lot of cities around the country were, which was this really striking surge in violent crime, in shootings and homicides. Cities were facing this, and both cities had shut their courts down, their courtrooms down, like most cities had in the immediate first months of the pandemic just to be on the safe side. And the two cities then took very different approaches to this surge in violence.

Wichita was so alarmed about the surge in shootings that they were seeing and the sense they were getting from defendants and suspects that they were going to face no consequence for this because the courts were closed - a lot of chatter that, look; nothing's going to happen to us because they're not even having trials anymore. And Wichita decided that they needed to do whatever they could to get things back open and running as normally as possible, so they made this huge effort, concerted effort to try to open the courtrooms back up, to start having trials again, doing it as safely as possible, but doing it, getting things back to normal as quickly as possible.

And Albuquerque, like most cities around the country, took a much different approach. Albuquerque was much slower in resuming normal court operations, had just a huge drop-off in the number of trials that they were holding in 2020 and then even 2021, and ended up with this just incredible backlog of cases and a real kind of just - in a sense, kind of a breakdown of their normal criminal justice system. And you saw that in a lot of other cities, such as Seattle and Oakland and Minneapolis. A lot of other cities took a similar delayed response to reopening. And looking back, one can make the case that that breakdown had played a part in the rise in disorder and violence in those cities.

MARTIN: One of the things that I really found fascinating about your reporting is that you made the argument that it's not the severity of punishment that is the critical factor. It's the certainty of being caught. It's the certainty of some consequence, right? So tell me about this theory of swift, certain and fair. What exactly does that theory mean? And why - how did you come to the idea that it's actually the swiftness of the response as opposed to the severity of the punishment that's really the critical factor here?

MACGILLIS: The idea of swift and certain consequences has really come to be kind of a consensus in the field of criminology. And it can be traced to a criminologist by the name of Mark Kleiman, who's no longer with us, but came up with this really persuasive idea that what matters when it comes to deterring criminal acts is not the severity of the possible punishment, that people are not thinking about, oh, I'm going to get 20 or 30 or 40 years if I do X or Y. What does matter is the likelihood that you're going to get caught and that you're going to face some consequence and you're going to face some fairly swift and immediate consequences for breaking the law. And that's what's important as a deterrent, the likely - as a deterrence - the likelihood of some kind of consequence right off the bat.

And when you have the closures of courts, these incredible constrictions on normal court activity for the better part of a year or two, you're completely undermining that deterrent effect, the likelihood of swift and certain consequence. And that really is at the heart of why these are - the basic sort of shutdown of this major civic institution, why it is quite plausible that it played a role in this rise of disorder and violence.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, you know, some of your previous reporting on crime - as you said, you've been reporting on these issues for some time now. You've written about some of the interventions that have been helpful in the past. I mean, you've written about a lot of the experimentation that has gone on in this space. Do you have a sense of what has been helpful in the past and whether any of those ideas are being resurrected and will make a difference?

MACGILLIS: Absolutely. I mean, there's this really good evidence showing that you can achieve real reductions in violence through proven initiatives, you know, all different ways of essentially targeting the young people, mostly young men, who we know are likeliest to be the victims of or perpetrators of violent crime. And there are all different sorts of interventions that one can engage in with these young people. And what happened during the pandemic, unfortunately, was that a lot of those efforts, that engagement, that intensive engagement just stopped, or they went online and they just really kind of fell away.

And what you saw, in a sense, was that all the things that we've kind of come to believe matter just as much as policing when it comes to maintaining public safety, all these sort of - these other kind of efforts that we've learned are effective were taken away. And we kind of proved their importance by - in their absence, by having removed them. And it's really unfortunate. And again, this is - kind of applies most to the - sort of to the, you know, left-center, left end of the political spectrum, that people who believe that we need to be doing more than policing were also sort of the people in charge who allowed for those other things to be taken away during the pandemic, you know, in a lot of these, you know, blue cities and states around the country. And now we're seeing the effects of that.

But yes, we can resurrect them. We need to resurrect them. They are being resurrected now in a lot of cities, often with help of federal funding from the - Biden administration's big stimulus bill from last year is paying for a lot of these things to be resurrected. But in some cases, it's just going to be really hard to get some of these young people back.

MARTIN: That was Alec MacGillis. He covers politics and government for ProPublica. You can read his latest reporting in The Atlantic. The title is "The Cause Of The Crime Wave Is Hiding In Plain Sight." Alec MacGillis, thanks so much for talking with us.

MACGILLIS: Well, thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.