(See a good analysis of the document from CityLab. On Twitter, John Pfaff provided this helpful historical national murder data. For those who want more detail, use this tool to analyze crime rates for all types of offenses over time.)
Like the Brennan Center before him, Rosenfeld finds that the homicide rise is real, but confined to a handful of cities (Houston made the list of ten cities with significant homicide increases last year) and within those cities mainly among black folk.
But he then does something Grits found odd, postulating three "plausible explanations" for the 2015 homicide rise. Those were 1) expansion of the heroin market, 2) the growing number of released prisoners thanks to recent reductions in state prison populations, and 3) the Ferguson Effect (of all things). Why just those three? Aren't there more "plausible" explanations?
Not increased gun sales after every mass shooting? Not family violence related to economic distress? Not gang violence related to cartel turf wars or changes in marijuana markets? We're sure it's not that heightened border enforcement makes trafficking in persons and drugs more dangerous and expensive? Or that the real reasons might relate to specific crime patterns in the handful of cities driving the statistical spike? Not that murder rates are at 50 year lows and some cities are regressing to a mean? I'd favor any of those suggestions over Rosenfeld's second and third hypotheses!
As far as correlation-mistaken-for-causation goes, you could just as
Of Rosenfeld's three suggestions, the heroin-market explanation is plausible. But a lot of that conflates with prescription opiod abuse and the delivery vehicles have taken on different vectors from, say, crack cocaine in the '80s. Besides, as Rosenfeld himself notes, the heroin trade began expansion long before this recent homicide spike.
Meanwhile, recent incarceration reductions so far have been quite modest and focused almost entirely on diverting low-level, nonviolent offenders from prison on the front end. So releasing more prisoners seems like an odd thing to blame. As a practical matter, mass incarceration requires mass prisoner releases for reasons which have nothing to do with do-gooder reform agendas.
Consider: Texas releases more than 70,000 inmates per year these days, while in 1990 Texas incarcerated around 40,000 state inmates en toto. TDCJ must release that many every year or the system would become overcrowded and overrun. The Legislature has made clear it doesn't want to pay more to expand a system which already gobbles up nearly $7 billion of the biennial budget.
A system where people go to prison and remain locked up forever is a punitive fantasy, not a realistic expectation of government's capacity nor even, really, an expression of justice. Texas releases five or six thousand of prisoners every month and the crime rate is as low as it's been since the '60s.
Finally, though apparently there's some evidence of police malingering/blue flu as a union tactic in Chicago, Grits has always found Heather MacDonald's Ferguson Effect hypothesis strained and a bit odd. I am surprised to see it portrayed as one of three "plausible" hypotheses, even though Rosenfeld concluded there's no way to confirm it based on currently available evidence. In fact, the point of the document was to suggest research stratagems to determine whether or not the Ferguson-effect explanation is viable.
To me, it's insulting to police officers and their professionalism to suggest that they're all layabouts and laggards who would fail to do their jobs because some protester insulted them or somebody said something mean about cops in the newspaper or comment section. Grits considers the way MacDonald and the police unions have parlayed such a low assessment of police officers' characters into a supposedly pro-police platform to be a quite-amazing parlor trick. It acknowledges and embraces the most cynical assessment of police critics and reframes true, legitimate criticisms as a badge of honor. Well played. Hard to believe that worked. The problem is, as a fundamentally untrue assessment, the frame cannot ultimately hold. Still, it's an impressive public relations ploy.