The emerging Department of Justice crime-control strategy is a criminologist’s nightmare.
Over the last thirty years researchers, law enforcement leaders and communities have pushed for smarter, better violence prevention — spurred in large part by the incredible violence and community destruction of the crack era, and the utter failure of existing approaches to do anything about it .
It’s paid dividends. We now know a lot about what works and what doesn’t. That knowledge begins, as Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE himself says, with the fact that “the vast majority of people just want to obey the law and live their lives. A disproportionate amount of crime is committed by a small group of criminals.”
That’s exactly right. The most important discovery about violence in the last decades is that it’s what Harvard University researcher Thomas Abt calls “sticky.” Studies in city after city show that very small, active networks of extraordinarily high-risk victims and offenders — about one-half of 1 percent of the population — are associated with 60 percent to 75 percent of all homicide, and that 5 percent or so of blocks and street corners is similarly associated. And while many people use drugs, those involved in meaningful drug distribution — particularly the most active and violent of them — are also relatively few.
So what should we to do about this “small group of criminals?” It’s a critical question. Sessions has called for a return to the “war on drugs” menu — more law enforcement, mandatory minimums and long sentences, even the anti-drug D.A.R.E. program — plus a new focus on heavy immigration enforcement and a withdrawal from DOJ attention to police misconduct. But we now know for a fact that these things don’t work, and can actually make matters worse.
To understand why, and to see what does work, we should look to the groundbreaking front-line police and community actors who have been developing creative solutions that are more effective, less harmful and profoundly more respectful of traumatized and alienated communities than the old and demonstrably ineffective and discredited menu.
They’re embracing new ways of focusing community engagement, social services and law enforcement to both protect and ensure accountability amongst Sessions’ “small group of criminals.” Work I’ve been involved in has law enforcement, community leaders and service providers sit down face-to-face with gang members and drug dealers, emphasize that the community hates the violence, offer to help anybody who wants it and explain the legal risks that come with violence. The result can be dramatic reductions in both violence and enforcement.
A recent study in Cincinnati, for example, found that this kind of policing reduced both violent crime and felony arrests by about 40 percent — wins all around. A similar approach in Chicago that didn’t involve any enforcement at all — the only legal move was to tell parolees with histories of violent offenses the stiff penalties they could face going forward — cut their violent crime in half.
A similar logic applies to the places where violence is concentrated. Police can cut crime by pure presence, but they can do much better by building relationships. LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership put officers long-term in tough Watts housing projects and charged them with reducing crime without making arrests, by working with kids, families and the community. Crime plummeted, homicides fell to near zero, killings that did happen were solved quickly — because residents told the newly-trusted cops who did it — and arrests were halved.
Sometimes the community can act entirely on its own. In Seattle’s Rainier Beach, community groups supplied with police crime data figured out that a “youth violence” problem was really students getting into trouble coming and going from school and addressed it by putting their own people in a handful of “hot spots” at the right times.
The best new crime prevention work recognizes the absolute centrality of what scholars call “legitimacy” — the community perception that authorities are respectful, unbiased, well-intentioned and have the standing to expect compliance. Breaking the bond between communities and the law does profound damage. As legitimacy goes down, crime reporting and cooperation with police and prosecutors go down, and violence goes up. Recognizing the absolute centrality of trust, police are backing away from stop-and- frisk and “zero tolerance” and working hard to reduce police violence and enhance accountability.
The opposite is clearly happening now in Hispanic communities, newly terrified of immigration enforcement: Houston police chief Art Acevedo says robbery, assault, and rape reporting by Hispanic communities are all down, the latter by 43 percent. The administration’s new policies may in fact be creating a safety net for predators.
And it’s not just police. District attorneys are choosing not to charge certain low-level offenses; lawmakers are eliminating cash bail; cities are working to streamline the expungement of criminal records and voiding outstanding warrants. Research shows that lasting damage from arrest and incarceration actually makes crime worse.
People who’ve been locked up have a hard time getting work. Their lifetime earnings go down. Their kids are more likely to be locked up and to fail school. They’re less trusting of the police. They’re even less likely to take part in neighborhood organizations and to vote. So many men have been locked up in some minority neighborhoods that it’s affecting the gender balance and marriage rates.
And draconian sentencing — despite its frequent common-sense appeal — simply isn’t that effective. Violent crime is overwhelmingly a young man’s game, and long sentences just keep prisoners locked up well after they would have stopped of their own accord: a Stanford study shows that three-strikes “lifers” released recently under California prison reform had a 1.3 percent recidivism rate, against nearly 45 percent for other California inmates. They don’t deter that well, in part because criminals discount their futures just like middle-class home buyers do: offenders have been found to view a 20-year prison sentence as only about six times as severe as a one-year stint. Offenders frequently don’t know that the massive federal sentences they may be exposed to even exist until they’re charged and it’s much too late.
Enforcement has also proved utterly pointless with respect to drug markets, where locked-up dealers are easily replaced by new ones. The drug war was incapable of keeping drugs out of the country, from being produced domestically or from being sold and bought freely. It’s unlikely to do better in an age of fentanyl mail-ordered over the dark web.
And as for D.A.R.E. — words fail. Criminologists are a cranky bunch, but there’s one thing that they all agree on: D.A.R.E. doesn’t work. By peddling misinformation about the dangers of drug use and telling huge numbers of impressionable kids that drugs and drug use are everywhere, the program can even increase abuse.
We need effective crime reduction strategies, just as we did in the '80s: Even before some cities recently started to see recent increases in homicide, violence suffered by poor minority communities — especially, young black men — was at intolerable levels. The opioid epidemic is hitting the country so hard it is reversing historic gains in life expectancy. We know enough to do better this time. We should do so, not willfully repeat the glaring and horrific mistakes of the recent past.
David M. Kennedy is the director of the National Network for Safe Communities and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.