A splash of truth about Colorado’s ‘crime wave’
Recent report is marred by dubious assumptions and obvious biases
A Minneapolis Police officer rolls up caution tape at a crime scene on June 16, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.(Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
A recent report by two former prosecutors about what they called “The Colorado Crime Wave” purports to chart rising rates of violent and property offenses in Colorado and to establish a connection to criminal justice policies enacted under Democrats.
The report received outsized attention, partly because leading into an election year it buttresses a tough-on-crime conservative talking point, and it benefited from the media visibility enjoyed by co-author George Brauchler, the Republican former district attorney in Arapahoe County, who has a radio show and a Denver Post column.
But the attention was undeserved, because the “Crime Wave” report is a cascade of suspect conclusions and conspicuous omissions.
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Released by the Greenwood Village-based Common Sense Institute, and co-authored by former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, a Democrat, the report details rising rates of crime in Colorado over the last decade, calculates the monetary cost of that crime, and insinuates that what caused it are progressive policies that “discourage the jailing of those arrested for committing crimes” and “reduce the severity of punishment for those convicted.”
In the report’s telling, the average monthly crime rate in Colorado is 28% higher than it was a decade ago, and 15% of the spike came in the last two years. The report’s most alarming assertion is that the violent crime rate in the state — including murders and rapes — jumped 35% between 2011 and 2020. The state’s property crime rate has also increased, the authors write. And they say Colorado’s experience stands in contrast to crime rates in the country as a whole.
“Despite steady declines in property crime rates nationally, Colorado has seen increases. While the nation has experienced a rise in violent crime, the rate of increase was more than double in Colorado,” the report says.
Even if we accept the crime-rate portion of the report, its credibility evaporates upon contact with dubious assumptions and obvious biases.
The report masquerades as an “economic analysis” — it claims the total cost of crime in Colorado exceeded $27 billion in 2020, with two-thirds of that figure comprising “intangible costs” such as reduced quality of life — but it reveals itself in fact to be a conservative op-ed when it laments the expanded use of personal recognizance bonds and the reduction of the incarcerated population. While the authors advise greater scrutiny of the data, they leave no doubt about the conclusion at which they’ve arrived. “Despite an increasing crime rate and growing population in Colorado, the total correctional population including jail and prison populations have decreased,” they complain.
The authors basically want to lock people up until the streets are sufficiently free of undesirables. That’s their response to crime, but they offer not a word about how crime might be prevented in the first place.
Criminal justice reform advocates, as well as many law enforcement professionals, have long understood the value of investment in equitable access to socioeconomic opportunity and security. Policies that rely excessively on the criminal justice system and incarceration “fail to address many of the underlying causes of violence and other criminalized behaviors that would be better addressed through other agencies, organizations, and community-led efforts — issues like unstable housing, poverty, limited educational opportunities, poor health, and inadequate access to services,” according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
What might explain Colorado’s failure to match better national crime trends? According to the Common Sense report, it’s simply that the state doesn’t keep enough people behind bars. The authors apparently considered no other factors. The state famously refuses to adequately fund K-12 education and has been ranked dead last in offering competitive teacher wages. Access to behavioral health services in Colorado is generally abysmal. The cost of housing in many Colorado communities has gone up so much that even many employed people “can’t find any place to live.” Homelessness is a growing feature of communities throughout the state, even those unaccustomed to seeing it, with one assessment this year ranking Colorado 11th in the country for per-capita homelessness. All of these conditions, alone and together, surely factor into the state’s crime rates.
Furthermore, racial disparities plague systems of bond and incarceration, in which white people are more likely to be treated with relative leniency. Any proposal that would expand Colorado’s jail population is also a proposal to perpetuate institutional racism. It’s not surprising that such a plan would come from Brauchler, whose legacy as a district attorney is partly defined by his behavior in the case of Elijah McClain. McClain, a Black man, died at the hands of white Aurora police officers who were charged with manslaughter only after months of street protests, but Brauchler chose to criminally charge protest leaders who were seeking justice for McClain.
Any increase in the rate of crime in Colorado is a problem that community leaders must address. But the “Crime Wave” report suggests counterproductive solutions.
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