How Is the Biden Administration Responding to Our Epidemic of Violent Crime?
Raj Ashar | July 2021
U.S. Marshals and local police engaging in Operation Triple Beam, a gang and violence reduction initiative in San Antonio, TX (2017)
n July 3rd, a 12-year-old boy and 20-year-old man were shot in Baltimore, each incident occurring within mere hours of the other. Over the course of the Independence Day weekend in Chicago, 82 people were shot, and 14 were killed. Through the pandemic, violent crime has surged nationwide: homicides rose by 25% in 2020 and the trend has continued into 2021, especially for larger cities.
This led President Biden to offer a nationwide plan to combat violent crime. Features of the plan include stemming the flow of firearms, a zero-tolerance policy for rogue gun dealers, using American Rescue Plan funds to invest in communities, actions taken by the Department of Justice (DOJ), and spending measures to help with the hiring of formerly incarcerated individuals. Many factors are at play when trying to combat a rise in crime, and oftentimes plans like Biden’s, called for in the midst of a rise in crime, are more superficial than effective. Nonetheless, Biden’s plan has promise.
Preventing Illegal Firearm Possession
A major aspect of the plan to combat crime involves enforcement measures to be taken by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). From now on the ATF will have a zero tolerance policy in cases where gun dealers violate federal law, often opting to revoke dealer licenses. Additionally, the ATF will take measures to coordinate with states as well as utilize data-driven prioritization to render the inspection process more efficient. The Biden-Harris administration also called on Congress to allocate more funding for the ATF to hire more personnel. The goal of all of these measures is to limit the possession of firearms by those who illegally possess them, which is especially important as about 70% of the gun offenders in a study completed by Vittes, Vernick, and Webster obtained their gun illegally.
However, the degree to which these changes stem the flow of illegal guns is questionable. Many parts of the ATF plan are simply organizational: facilitating better communication, organization, and transparency.
Of the changes, the most impactful will likely be the ATF’s zero tolerance policy. By the classical Becker crime model, which sees crime as a function of the probability of being caught, punishment severity and expected utility gain from crime, the increase in the price of breaking the law should, in theory, reduce the probability a gun dealer breaks the law. Additionally, should Congress approve the funding Biden has called for, a boost in the number of ATF personnel could work to further crack down on the flow of illegal guns.
Providing Employment Opportunities
President Biden’s plan also aims to help formerly incarcerated individuals obtain employment. These measures include making it easier for employers to leverage the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), as well as the American Rescue Plan’s Employee Retention Credit (ERC).
Another measure, taken by the Office of Personnel Management, is to implement the “ban the box” policy, which would not allow federal employers or contractors to ask about arrest and conviction history until a conditional job offer is made. These measures are very encouraging, as recidivism is a major issue. A DOJ report found that 43.9% of prisoners were arrested within just a year of their release. Approximately 25.7% of those in the sample were involved with violent offenses. Amid the current employee shortage, the measures taken by the Biden-Harris administration should be at least somewhat effective in providing more jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals. Jobs could have the effect of reducing crimes committed by formerly incarcerated individuals, as a study looking at formerly incarcerated individuals in Indiana found that employment status had a significant negative effect on recidivism. Other studies have affiliated employment with varying degrees of effectiveness in combating recidivism, but more jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals would not have any major foreseeable negative consequences.
Youth are the age group most often involved in violent crimes. In his plan, President Biden cites actions taken by the Department of Labor to provide pre-apprenticeship and extracurricular opportunities for young people. The economic literature supports actions like these to reduce violence. A paper by Jonathan Davis and Sara Heller found that a summer jobs program in Chicago generated a one-year decline in violent-crime arrests by 33%. The Biden administration is taking no new action to expand youth programs, simply pointing to recent Department of Labor action, and grouping it under the administration’s plan.
In evaluating the measures taken by President Biden, we must also understand that crime is often best addressed at the local level; the federal government does not have control over policing measures and community efforts undertaken by individual states and localities, which are major factors affecting crime. Some aspects of the plan, namely the recidivism measures, are new and could be effective, while others are simply references to past governmental action. This is to be expected of a plan which was more of a public response, than a planned out, intentional measure.
The protection of citizens is one of a government’s most vital functions. In the political landscape, it is an issue that often galvanizes voters; look no further than the New York mayoral primary where former police officer Eric Adams pulled away in a crowded race by focusing his campaign on the violent crime epidemic. While President Biden’s plan was in part a political demonstration in response to the rising crime rate, the plan does take steps in the right direction: namely with its actions to reduce recidivism. However, it’s largely up to state and local governments to build on these federal actions to preserve the safety of their citizens.