Numbers released this week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation paint a stark picture of the last year: A nearly 30% rise in the homicide rate across the country, with New York also recording an increase.
The increase drove an overall increase in the violent crime rate — including assault, robbery and rape — by around 5%. Property crimes, meanwhile, continued to decline, falling by 8% since 2019.
But the FBI numbers do not dive into why the murders spiked last year, coming amid a pandemic that disrupted nearly every facet of life. Republican lawmakers who have opposed changes to New York's criminal justice laws in recent years blame those reforms. But advocates for the changes say the cause behind the spike is more complex.
"Collectively I think it had a profound impact because we believe, many of my colleagues and those in the field, believe it has created a revolving door of danger and disaster," said Republican Sen. Jim Tedisco, who represents the Capital Region suburbs.
State lawmakers in recent years have approved a series of bills meant to reduce the jail and prison population, including new laws overhauling bail and parole violations. Tedisco, along with his fellow lawmakers, have called for judges to have more discretion in setting bail, and more facilities are needed to keep violent people off the streets.
"This defies logic and common sense for constituents, for DAs, for law enforcement and for the judiciary," Tedisco said.
In recent days, Gov. Kathy Hochul has sought to reduce the number of people at Rikers Island jail in New York City, including an expansion of the use of remote hearings amid increasingly critical conditions at the facility.
"The answer is to create another facility, to have rehabilitation programs that really may work, but to keep the very violent people off the streets in an appropriate place," Tedisco said.
But Alexander Horwitz, of the advocacy group New Yorkers United for Justice, said the reasons behind the surge in homicides is more complicated.
"We need to look at all those complex factors that hit communities already struggling with crime and violence, communities that are already struggling with crime and poverty," he said.
Horwitz instead points to the pandemic as a primary driver of the unusual spike.
"We know that people were trapped in their apartments," he said. "We know that gun sales — there were 3 million more guns purchased in the summer of 2020 than the summer of 2019 — we know police and community relations were degrading and that was accelerated by the pandemic."
To address the problem, Horowitz said there needs to be a focus on helping disadvantaged communities.
"Restoring those programs and investing in those communities is the way forward and the way out," Horwitz said.