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Murder and assault rates rose nationwide in the first half of 2020, although other violent and property crime rates are on the decline, according to the FBI’s most recent Preliminary Uniform Crime Report (UCR).
Legal experts, meanwhile, warn about an increase in hate crimes, which were already spiking in 2019, the FBI said in a second report, released in November.
The FBI reported that cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter rose 14.8% in 2020, and aggravated assaults were up 4.6%, while rapes were down 17.8% and robbery, 7.1%. Released in September, the UCR compares data for January to June 2020 to the same period in 2019.
Rates of homicide and assault are indeed rising across the country, according to data from the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, created in July by the Council on Criminal Justice.
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The commission reports that homicide rates between June and August 2020 increased by 53% over the same period in 2019, while aggravated assaults went up by 14%. Led by Richard Rosenfeld, PhD, a former president of the American Society of Criminology, the study concluded that “subduing the pandemic, pursuing crime control strategies of proven effectiveness, and enacting needed police reforms will be necessary to achieve durable reductions in violent crime in American cities.”
Hate crimes increased in 2019
Meanwhile, the FBI released its 2019 Hate Crime Statistics report two weeks ago. A survey of more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies across the country reported 7,314 criminal incidents and 8,559 related offenses that were motivated by race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity last year.
More than half of the victims (57.6%) were targeted because of their race or ethnicity, and 20.15 because of religion. Another 16.7% were targeted because of sexual-orientation and 2.7% because of gender identity, said the report.
“Just in general, pandemic-induced weirdness may have set normal patterns aside, said Nora V. Demleitner, a professor of law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, who sits on the board of the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative.
Ms. Demleitner suggested the rise in hate crimes is related to the political climate. “[There is] more widespread lack of trust in the police or a withdrawal of policing,” which may be due to staffing shortages in some communities due to Covid-19, she said.
Stress of the pandemic
Legal experts attribute the increase in violent and hate crime to the stresses of the epidemic, especially unemployment and risk of exposure.
“Unemployment, economic insecurity and the stress of exposure to COVID-19, coupled with mandatory stay-at-home orders during the initial phases of the pandemic, have strained familial and community relationships,” said Daphne R. Robinson, an attorney and public health consultant in Shreveport, La.
“I believe that this upheaval has contributed to increased domestic violence, child abuse and participation in unlawful activities, thus increasing exposure to gun violence,” Ms. Robinson told Medical Daily. She maintained that the level of racist rhetoric has been increasing in the US, and people of color have increasingly felt marginalized.
Many people have been laid off or furloughed, and are isolated at home 24/7 with their families, or by themselves.
“Rather than the usual few hours between work and bed, the result is an increase in domestic violence,” said Don Hammond, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles. “That is reflected in the overall violent crime rate.”
Common outlets for stress relief like gyms, bars and other activities have been severely curtailed due to COVID-19. Mr. Hammond said stress and energy build to a breaking point.
“That opportunity came when police officers killed several people, sparking large-scale protests,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to widespread protests that occurred after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota last May.
Individuals either take out that stress on others or turn it against themselves. An article in April 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association warned of the heightened risk of suicide due to pandemic-related factors, including economic stress, isolation, less access to community and religious support, barriers to mental health treatment, and 24/7 news coverage.
Courts at fault?
Another factor, suggested Mr. Hammond, is the courts’ handling of criminal cases during the pandemic.
“Courts have closed, extended hearing dates, and reduced or eliminated bail. Jails also emptied out in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus,” he said.
“… Now, to deal with a backlog of trials (over 7,000 in LA County), prosecutors are offering better plea deals to resolve cases, resulting in less custody time for those who are convicted.”
This has set some criminals free and able to commit additional crimes, believing they would not be held in custody due to COVID-19, he said.
Unfortunately, the criminal justice system as a whole does a poor job of providing resources to address issues that underlie criminal conduct—mental health, addictions, poverty and other conditions that lead to crime, said Mr. Hammond.
“To the extent that this has been improving over the last several years, 2020 has been a step backwards, as courts get overwhelmed with cases and are reluctant to monitor more people in programs.”
Jennifer Nelson is a health writer based in Florida who also writes about health and wellness for AARP, PBS’ Next Avenue, Shondaland, and others.
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