As Violent Crime Rises in Portland and Across the Nation, Should Progressive Reforms Bear the Blame?

A timely report looks at the national context surrounding some high-profile Portland attacks.

Violent crime is the story of Portland’s summer. News broadcasts and newspaper headlines are dominated by a recent pair of unprovoked attacks: the racist assault of a Japanese American family over the Fourth of July weekend, and the killing last week of an 82-year-old Oregon State University professor attacked at a bus stop. Both assaults were allegedly committed by men living on the streets.

Violent crime rates are rising across the country, and the trend is making people feel unsafe in their cities—and, by extension, threatening progressive efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Portland and major cities across the country.

But are progressive reforms and activist politicians to blame for the latest crime wave? That question was posed by a timely report published last Tuesday by researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Their conclusion: There just isn’t enough evidence to establish a link between increased violence and progressive policies. “We’re seeing narratives about crime and public safety being used to rollback gains in the reform movement—largely without evidentiary basis,” Ames Grawert, an author of the report and senior counsel at the Brennan Center, told WW.

The problem is real: The nation’s murder rate rose by nearly 30% in 2020 alone, the report notes. In Chicago, murders increased 57% from the prior year. In Portland, there was an 83% jump in homicides.

But, Grawert said, it’s “not a blue state problem.” The pandemic-fueled crime wave is hitting red and blue states, progressive cities and conservative rural counties. It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific cause, according to the Brennan Center analysis, but “the evid­ence points to broad national causes driv­ing rising crime.”

Furthermore, violent crime is up—but nowhere near the highs seen in the 1980s and ’90s when tough-on-crime policies were in vogue. And, according to the report, studies trying to link rising crime with police pullbacks in the wake of mass protests have failed to withstand scrutiny.

Grawert and co-author Noah Kim marshal research from across the country to make their argument, but researchers in Portland have come to similar conclusions.

Chris Campbell, a PSU professor who has studied Oregon’s criminal justice system extensively, was critical of addressing violent crime with more punitive policies. “We’ve never seen that actually work to reduce crime,” he said, unless it’s accompanied by significant investments in social services.

Still, the electorate’s appetite for criminal justice reform appears to be waning. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently rolled back aspects of major bail reform legislation passed in the state in 2019. And in San Francisco, a progressive district attorney was ousted from office following backlash over the city’s lack of progress in addressing persistent low-level crime.

Grawert offered some policy suggestions, but little optimism. He pointed to stricter gun control laws as one way to address the problem, but he emphasized the need for major reinvestments in social services.

But, he said, “I fear that we’re losing momentum for making that sort of structural change in the country.”