The NCSL Blog


By Amanda Essex

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's crime statistics for 2017 show a decline in both violent and property crime from 2016 to 2017.

illustration of crime statsLegislators are interested in crime statistics because they provide useful data points for policymaking. Tools like the FBI’s new Crime Data Explorer provide better access and understanding of this data.

In conjunction with this release, a telebriefing was convened featuring NCSL and a diverse coalition of stakeholders in the criminal justice system. The work of the stakeholders and the telebriefing were supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

In an op-ed in The Hill, Laurie Garduque, director for justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation and lead for the Safety and Justice Challenge, emphasized the importance of a range of criminal justice data for policymakers: “Only with more data will jurisdictions be able to see the full picture and tailor reforms accordingly so we can begin to answer critical questions about who is in jail, why they’re there and what factors may be keeping them there unnecessarily.”

David LaBahn, speaking on behalf of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys during the telebriefing, emphasized the importance of using “data and performance measures in order to monitor and improve the decision-making process” for prosecutors across the country.

On the telebriefing, I pointed out that “in order for data such as the just-released crime statistics to be most useful, lawmakers want a full understanding of the information that it contains and any gaps in the information or caveats that go along with it. For instance, they want to clearly understand the factors that are driving the data, such as localized increases or decreases in certain types of crime. Information like this informs the decision-making process and results in policy that helps their local jurisdictions improve public safety rather than hinder efforts underway to make a more fair and just system.”

States continue to distinguish between serious, violent offenses and lower-level crimes. For instance, states have modified criminal offenses relating to possession and dealing of controlled substances to differentiate people with substance use disorders from high-level dealers. More information on these types of changes can be found here.

Justin Lundgren, assistant chief of police in Spokane, Wash., spoke on behalf of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He referenced that police are looking at other options outside of arrest for “individuals who are dealing with substance abuse disorder, mental illness, homelessness and low-level quality of life crimes.” A recent NCSL report on trends in law enforcement legislation examines how states are expanding arrest alternatives.

He also provided information on Spokane’s efforts around identifying mental health service providers for a regional mental health crisis stabilization facility for law enforcement, intended to serve as a voluntary alternative to jail for those experiencing a mental health crisis. The information gleaned from crime statistics can be used in combination with research on what works to reduce recidivism to help lawmakers determine where state resources are best allocated. A recent NCSL report on mental health for justice-involved individuals examines how states are supporting treatment and services for those involved with the justice system.

Amanda Essex specializes in policing and other front-end justice issues for NCSL. Additional resources can be found on NCSL’s Front-End Justice homepage.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.