We’re Underfunding the Police

Improving our criminal-justice system means spending the requisite money to address America’s horrific and long-standing problem with criminal violence.

Photo of a police officer.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

Why is the United States so exceptionally violent? In 2021, for example, more than 26,000 Americans were murdered—a homicide rate that would be unthinkable in the affluent market democracies of Europe and East Asia. There are any number of explanations for America’s outlier status, including deep-seated cultural characteristics and the prevalence of firearms. But we suggest a different, more parsimonious perspective: This high level of violence is a policy choice brought about by insufficient action. We are so violent because we underinvest in our criminal-justice system.

That may seem counterintuitive amid claims that the U.S. spends excessively on public order and safety, and a movement to “defund the police.” But across all levels of government, the U.S. spends less than 1 percent of its GDP on policing, a share that has declined since the Great Recession. Our level of spending and the number of police officers we employ per capita put us in the middle of the pack relative to our OECD peers, even though our crime rate is far higher. And police-employment rates are declining, a concern police leaders were raising as early as 2019.

Then there is the structural fact that U.S. police departments are far more fragmented than those of our peer countries—the U.K. has 43 distinct police departments, whereas the U.S. has about 18,000. One result of our idiosyncratic approach to financing law enforcement is that poor and nonwhite jurisdictions have far less police protection than richer and whiter jurisdictions do. All this “under-policing” contributes to higher murder rates, especially in predominantly Black communities.

The problem doesn’t stop with policing. Court backlogs ballooned during the coronavirus pandemic, but even before then, courts were already taking too long to clear cases: According to research from the National Center for State Courts, just 30 percent of felony criminal cases were disposed of within 90 days, compared with the national standard of 75 percent. Our data on crime are in disarray too—in 2021, the FBI was forced to statistically guess at nationwide crime rates.

Some might object that the United States is home to a large and well-funded network of prisons, at least as measured by the number of people we incarcerate in them. But by other measures, we surely don’t spend enough. In-custody deaths are at shockingly high levels. A quarter to half of former prisoners reoffend within five years of release. And ex-offenders are massively overrepresented among the homeless population—a reflection, in no small part, of the inadequacy of the services available to people transitioning out of prison. Our penitentiaries house a large number of offenders, but that doesn’t mean they have the resources to protect and rehabilitate them.

One could trace this chronic underinvestment at least as far back as the Jim Crow South, when underfunded law-enforcement agencies were strikingly indifferent to violence against Black Americans. In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, the legal academic William J. Stuntz observed that whereas killers of white Americans in that era could generally expect a vigorous response from the criminal-justice system, killers of Black Americans, regardless of race, were very likely to go free. And, as the journalist Jill Leovy observed in Ghettoside, that era’s absence of effective crime control in Black communities gave rise to vigilantism: Many Black individuals who found no recourse in turning to the law felt compelled to take matters into their own hands.

That pattern reverberates even now. In 2020, for example, Black Americans were the victims in 61 percent of all gun homicides, most of which go unsolved and unpunished by the law. Assuming they are apprehended and punished at all, offenders whose victims are Black can be expected to receive lighter sentences than those whose victims are not Black. In some zip codes in the United States, young Black men are more likely to be killed than if they served in wartime Iraq and Afghanistan.

This endemic violence has devastated the civic infrastructure of many American cities. Lawlessness gives rise to middle-class flight, which in turn shrinks the tax bases that finance local law enforcement. The isolation and deprivation that result are nothing less than a moral scandal.

The criminal-justice system affects millions of people every year, yet this crisis of underinvestment has been largely overlooked. Indeed, recent years have seen renewed liberal support for disinvestment in the criminal-justice system, propelled by the widely held view that we over-police communities of color and over-incarcerate.

The woefully unpopular “defund the police” movement is only the most visible manifestation of rising liberal support for disinvestment. It has also appeared in the push to shift many functions—including traffic enforcement and public-order maintenance—out of the criminal-justice system and often into the (less accountable) NGO sector, and in the imposition of unfunded mandates on police departments and prisons in the name of reform.

This approach is perhaps best understood as a sort of progressive version of “starve the beast,” the conservative theory that slashing taxes forces cuts in government programs. Advocates of criminal-justice reform argue in effect that because the system is broken, we should defund rather than fix it. They point to police misconduct and violence as evidence that policing doesn’t work, not that policing needs more resources. They point to slow courts as a reason to release suspects pretrial, rather than asking how to ensure speedy trials. They point to the worst conditions in America’s prisons and jails as a reason to decarcerate, but they don’t talk about how to make incarceration more humane and less criminogenic.

This “starve the beast” approach is particularly peculiar from the left, which usually identifies government dysfunction as a product of underinvestment. In this case, that prescription is correct: Improving our criminal-justice system means spending the requisite money to address America’s horrific and long-standing problem with criminal violence.

One leader who seems to understand this is President Joe Biden. The White House has pushed back against “starve the beast” progressivism, floating a $37 billion public-safety plan. Some of its investments—including $13 billion for the COPS Hiring Program and investments in court case-management tools—are smart steps in the right direction. But it also spends billions on alternatives to the criminal-justice system, including community-violence-intervention programs whose efficacy is at best unproven, and alternative responders who address just a fraction of police calls for service. It’s worth researching how these programs work at scale, but handing them $20 billion before that’s done seems unwise at best.

What could and should garner bipartisan support is a more focused package, one that concentrates federal dollars on improving the institutions we know keep us safe. Hiring tens of thousands of police officers, as Biden wants to do, is a good start. So is funding to help courts expedite case processing, particularly by modernizing case-management software and practices—which would in turn help bring backlogs under control. An obvious third area is rehabilitating failing prisons and jails. In addition, funding for research, evaluation, and statistics—which pays for both crime data and criminological research—has plummeted in recent years. Charging the Justice Department’s research arm, the National Institute of Justice, with making creative investments would make our system both smarter and tougher.

Why are these more traditional tools of crime control the right way to fight crime? Because decades of evidence show that they work. Studies of federally subsidized police-hiring grants consistently find that cities that receive the grants reduce crime compared with those that don’t. One study found that the burst of hiring overseen by the Obama administration prevented four violent crimes and 15 property crimes for each cop hired. For every 10 percent increase in police-force size, another estimate suggests, violent-crime rates drop by 13 percent and property-crime rates by 7 percent.

The benefits of funding don’t stop with police. The speed with which courts dispose of cases has been considered central to criminal deterrence for centuries. Supporting this, probation programs that impose what experts call “swift, certain, and fair” sentences—a short jail stay—have been shown to deter drug offenders in Hawaii and drunk drivers in South Dakota. And it’s intuitive that worse prisons engender more crime: Research from Colombia finds that as-if-random assignment to a newer, better prison reduces an offender’s risk of reincarceration within one year by 36 percent.

In short, spending on our criminal-justice system’s capacity offers palpable, proven returns. This is particularly significant against the enormous costs of crime, estimated at more than $600 billion in 2017 alone—mostly due to violence. If we have a pressing problem, and tools that can address it, how can we not use one to resolve the other?

Some conservatives may blanch at expanding federal spending amid soaring inflation and a looming debt crisis. But a small increase in the federal government’s already limited outlays for public safety—about $66 billion in 2021—could be compensated for with spending cuts on less-effective programs. And although state and local policy makers should lead the way, the federal government has long used the power of the purse to backstop the provision of the state’s most basic function: public safety.

Standing up to “starve the beast” progressivism makes sense electorally. But it is also the right thing to do for our too-violent nation. Every year, tens of thousands of people are murdered. We can do more, much more, to stop the bleeding, if only we spend what’s necessary to meet our most basic civic obligation: protecting public order and safety.

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