Category: violent crime

Major article on crime and mass incarceration in the New Yorker

By Alan Bean

Adam Gopnik is an art critic, not an expert on mass incarceration.  But he has read widely on the subject and this major piece in the New Yorker offers an extended commentary on ideas recently shared by Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Robert Perkinson (Texas Tough), William Stunz (The Collapse of American Criminal Justice), and Franklin Zimring’s book on New York City (The City That Became Safe).  No book can say everything that needs to be said about the American Gulag, so a carefully-crafted piece that combines the best insights of leading authorities is extremely helpful.

Following Stuntz and Zimring, “The Caging of America” notes that major improvements can be enacted without revolutionary reforms.  The crime rate of New York City has fallen by 80% (twice the national average) without significant poverty programs.  People are no better off, by and large, they are just less likely to transgress.

If Gopnik had added the ground-breaking insights of David Kennedy (Don’t Shoot) to his mix, he would be less inclined to believe that crime, especially violent crime, falls of its own accord.  But Kennedy, like Stuntz and Zimring, isn’t waiting for the New Jerusalem to descend from heaven anytime soon.  These authors believe that utopian dreaming can be just an inimical to real reform as the tough-on-crime politics that created the problem in the first place.  

Gopnik’s piece concludes like this:

“Oh, I have taken too little care of this!” King Lear cries out on the heath in his moment of vision. “Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” “This” changes; in Shakespeare’s time, it was flat-out peasant poverty that starved some and drove others as mad as poor Tom. In Dickens’s and Hugo’s time, it was the industrial revolution that drove kids to mines. But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care. (emphasis added)

Has common sense made our problems “just get up and go away?”

If the problem is violent crime, a case could be made.  Even so, as Kennedy demonstrates in Don’t Shoot, violent crime rages on in cities like New Orleans and Baltimore with no solution in sight.  Common sense isn’t all that common.

If the problem is mass incarceration, no big-time fix is in sight.  Prison populations have leveled out, and in some places incarceration rates have actually dropped; but America still locks up over 2 million people, and it will take more than common sense to change that fact.  As Michelle Alexander argues, when careers and corporate fortunes are dependent on the status quo, change requires something akin to a revolution.

Gopnik believes that a massive drop in the American crime rate means mass incarceration was a mistake.  Not everyone agrees.  In fact, it is frequently argued that crime rates have fallen because we have locked up so many criminals.  So long as the American mainstream believes this (and it does) mass incarceration, with all its attendant woes, will flourish.    

The Caging of America

Why do we lock up so many people?

by

Prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock. (more…)

Pastor W.G. Daniels waged peace in Fort Worth, Texas

PASTOR 4By Alan Bean

No one can account for the dramatic drop in violent crime.  According to the Washington Post, in 2011 the DC homicide rate reached its lowest point since 1963.  But just across the county line, the homicide rate is experiencing an upswing.  When violent crime drops there is always a reason.  When gang-related violence plunged in Fort Worth, TX, a big part of the reason was the Rev. W.G. Daniels. 

Daniels died this week.  Marty Sabota’s obituary shows that Daniels grasped many of the principles criminologist  David Kennedy outlines in his excellent book Don’t Shoot:

America has four inextricably linked problems that converge in its most troubled communities.   There’s the violence that terrorizes many of its, especially, black and minority communities. There’s the chaos that comes with, especially, public drug markets.  There’s the devastation being wrought on, especially, troubled black and minority communities by our criminal justice in response to the first two problems.  And there’ the worsening racial divide that’s causing.

In Fort Worth, Pastor W.G. Daniels stopped the violence by forging a creative dialogue between law enforcement and the communities most affected by violent crime.  A former police officer who understood the law enforcement mindset, Daniels made the perfect peacemaker.  He knew why his neighbors didn’t want to talk to the police, but he also understood why law enforcement will always concentrate on high crime communities.  Daniels didn’t want the police to ignore the hot neighborhoods; he just wanted them to show more respect and professionalism.  

Getting gang members, community members and the police on the same page isn’t easy, but it can be done.  As Daniels once told the Star-Telegram:

You had gangs like the Crips and the Bloods fighting against each other, but after we conducted a survey, we found that there just needed to be somebody to bring a truce to stop the madness and no better people to do it than pastors who meet every Sunday. We needed to send a message that it would not be tolerated, and by the help of God and Christ we were able to bring about peace.

When people are talking to one another behavior changes.  Open air drug markets move underground, police officers feel more appreciated and behave with a higher level of professionalism, residents of high crime neighborhoods gain a new sense of confidence and self-respect.  Criminologist David Kennedy and pastor W.G. Daniels heal communities because they understand the spiritual nature of the war they are fighting.  (more…)

“Both sides are us”: Stuntz and Kennedy unpack the spirituality of criminal justice reform

By Alan Bean

In 2010, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, rocked the civil rights community back on its heels.  Alexander accused the criminal justice reform movement of seeking legal solutions to a moral problem, of fighting for affirmative action while abandoning the victims of a brutal and counter-productive drug war, of telling pretty stories about wrongfully convicted poster-boys while ignoring the social nightmares unfolding in poor communities of color.

 If the way we pursue reforms does not contribute to the building of a movement to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, and if our advocacy does not upset the prevailing public consensus that supports the new caste system, none of the reforms, even if won, will successfully disrupt the nation’s racial equilibrium.  Challenges to the system will be easily absorbed or deflected, and the accommodations made will serve primarily to legitimate the system, not undermine it.  We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war.

In 2011, two books by white males revealed that Michelle Alexander is not the only American scholar in search of a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration.   The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz, and Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America by David M. Kennedy are not books written in response to Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  Stuntz and Kennedy are white male academics who see mass incarceration and the war on drugs as unmitigated disasters.  These authors tackle America’s racial history head on.  Most importantly, they agree with Alexander that a movement to end mass incarceration must begin with a new moral consensus.    (more…)

Why did violent crime drop by 13% last year?

By Alan Bean

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the rate of violent victimization declined a jaw-dropping 13 percent in 2010.  Nobody seems to know why.  During the prison boom, drops in the crime rate were often associated with mass incarceration–they can’t commit crimes if they’re all locked up.  But we have been sending fewer American citizens to prison in recent years and the drop in crime has only accelerated.  And all of this during the worst recession in 80 years.  What’s going on?

There is little association between violent crime and unemployment statistics.  More often than not, violence is a rage response.  Cost-benefit calculation is only involved when criminals kill to eliminate potential witnesses, but few murders or assaults fit this scenario.  Drug and alcohol abuse can be contributing factors, but people rarely get violent because they are high and the use of some drugs (marijuana, for example) actually inhibit violent behavior. 

The best explanation for shifting rates of violent crime comes from Randolph Roth’s excellent American Homicide.  After analyzing statistics on violent crime from the earliest days of European settlement, Roth shows that America is a far more violent nation than other Western democracies.  For instance, “Th next most homicidal democracy, Canada, has had only a quarter of the homicides per capita that the United States has had since Worth War II.”

Here are a few of Roth’s big-picture observations: (more…)