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Despite the fact that Baton Rouge experienced its most murderous year on record in 2020, a decrease in incarceration rates during the pandemic did not lead to an increase in overall crimes rates, a new study found. 

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council — a coalition of local law enforcement agencies — commissioned the study, which examined the pandemic’s impact on crime, arrests and jail population in East Baton Rouge Parish and 10 other jurisdictions throughout the nation. According to the JFA Institute, which authored the report for the CJCC, data from January 2019 to December 2020 showed “a clear, consistent pattern” of crime and jail populations declining in tandem.

“There’s no secret that murders in East Baton Rouge have increased,” CJCC Executive Director Christopher Csonka said. However, he added, “one thing this report shows is that murder is just one part of violent crime as a whole.”

To temper the coronavirus’ spread in early 2020, state and local criminal justice agencies tried to lower jail and prison populations.

In Baton Rouge, which saw its murder rate jump from 81 homicides in 2019 to an all-time high of 114 killings in 2020, those efforts included making fewer misdemeanor and traffic arrests, halting evictions and suspending court hearings.

“(The policies) did change the way we handled certain calls,” Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman Sgt. L’Jean McKneely said. “We were very selective with who we placed in jail.”

The CJCC study also looked at crime trends in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; Charleston County, South Carolina; Cook and Lake counties in Illinois; Los Angeles and San Francisco counties in California; Orleans Parish, Louisiana; Pennington County, South Dakota; Spokane County, Washington and St. Louis County, Missouri. Analysis of all 11 jurisdictions showed that despite concerns releasing inmates would endanger the public, shrinking incarceration rates had relatively little impact on reported crime rates last year.

“While it is still too early to say whether laxed release (and) less booking policies are effective and overall safe for EBR, we can still celebrate small successes and collaborations,” East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III wrote in an email to The Advocate.

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However, he warned that such short-term numbers can be misleading.

“Criminologists always warn of looking at crime over small periods of time,” he said, “and the same holds true with this study.”

The DA also noted that there may be more to the study’s data than meets the eye.

“Some local numbers do seem to suggest that lower calls for service does not mean crime is not, in fact, occurring,” Moore said. “For example, we know from ShotSpotter (a gunshot detection system) data that only 20 percent of shots fired are called into police. I would assume that the same is true for many other crimes.”

Despite the city’s high murder rates, Csonka called the report’s findings “positive,” and said CJCC hopes to expand its anti-violence efforts.

The focus now, he said, will be on further decreasing those overall numbers.

“I really think that if we want to make significant changes, we have to look at pre-arrest (behavior),” Csonka said, adding that more youth-focused programs could go a long way towards preventing crime.

“If we want to affect permanent change, we need to look at juvenile outreach,” he said. “East Baton Rouge is poised to do a lot better.”