Chicagoans march for peace in Englewood in 2017. Credit: Simone Orendain / Wikimedia Commons

When homicides spiked in Chicago in 2016, the increase was variously blamed on a drop in stop-and-frisk interactions by police following an ACLU of Illinois lawsuit, poor parenting, and the fallout from the release of video of the police murder of Laquan McDonald in November 2015.

But according to a study published Monday by researchers at Northwestern University, the spike in violence may have been partly driven by a state budget impasse that temporarily defunded violence-prevention and youth outreach programs. 

In 2015, then-Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed several budget bills passed by the Illinois General Assembly. The ensuing fiscal standoff lasted until August 31, 2017, when Rauner signed a budget that the Illinois House had passed three days earlier. During the impasse, Chicago experienced one of its worst years of gun violence in recent decades.

Once funding was restored, the homicide rate declined to levels comparable to those seen before the budget stalled, the study found.

Maryann Mason, a sociologist at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine who co-authored the study, said it was designed to figure out what environmental factors caused the 2016 spike and subsequent decline. “The fall and rise of the budget seemed to match almost identically to the rise and fall of homicides in Chicago” between 2017 and 2018, Mason said. 

Mason and researchers at Lurie Children’s Hospital and hospitals in Boston analyzed homicide data in Chicago from 2009 to 2018. They compared that to funding for social services such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and reviewed reports about the effect of the budget impasse on street outreach and violence-prevention organizations. 

What changed during that time period “was the lack of a state budget—which didn’t immediately dry up funds; there were reserves and stopgap funding—but then by 2016 the impasse had gone on so long that funds really did dry up,” Mason said. 

In 2016, Chicago saw more than 4,300 shootings and 762 homicides, at the time the highest annual total since 1997. According to the study, 344 of the victims were between 15 and 24 years old. The homicide rate among that age group in 2016 was 77 percent higher than the previous year.

Between 2009 and 2015, homicides of people between 15 and 24 years old averaged 219 per year. After funding was restored, they dropped to 284 in 2017 and 192 in 2018. 

The effect of the budget impasse was felt by people working in street-level outreach programs at the time, said Norman Kerr, the CEO of Trajectory Changing Solutions, a consulting firm that works on violence reduction in Chicago and nationally. Kerr was Lori Lightfoot’s director of violence reduction from 2019 to 2021, and before that he worked for violence-intervention nonprofits such as UCAN and CeaseFire (since renamed Cure Violence) for decades.

“There were several partner organizations that just weren’t operating because they didn’t have the funding to continue,” Kerr said. “There were some groups that, when the budget was stalled, continued in some ways. But there were many that just couldn’t wait for the impasse to settle, so they basically had to close their doors.” Many after-school, violence-intervention, and mediation programs simply stopped, he said.

Violence-prevention efforts must be expanded to cover more communities and take place at all times of the day and days of the week, Kerr said. He added that consistent, uninterrupted funding of such programs is necessary to achieve that.

“We’re operating at 25 percent of where we need to be when it comes to intervention workers,” he said. “In most of the communities we’re in, they’re not fully covered . . . we’re covering just portions of communities. We really have to get to the proper scale to really turn the corner and achieve a tipping point.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted outreach organizations’ ability to deliver services to affected communities, which may have played a role in the spike in violence Chicago experienced in 2020 and 2021. “In-person connection has been largely put on hold, so we see an effect even though it’s not budget-driven,” Mason said.

Homicide remains the leading cause of death among Black youths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“I want us to start to look at violence as something that’s preventable, and not inevitable,” Mason said. “I think our findings suggest that we could do a lot to prevent violence. We don’t have to accept that this is the way we have to live—in Chicago or anywhere.”