We can’t punish or police away crime

Do we care more about the 1 or the 99?

According to The New York Times, homicides soared 16% over the last year in a sampling of 20 large cities, including D.C. In fact, D.C.’s increase is a higher 24%. (The 2019 number was already a 10-year high.) In this month alone, 23 people have needlessly lost their lives to gun violence. Crime is ravaging (mostly black, low-income) communities and the residents don’t feel safe in their own homes. The neighborhood where I grew up is at the heart of this area; I get it. This has to stop!

But the knee-jerk response of Mayor Muriel Bowser and the chief of police (like so many politicians elsewhere) is to double down on the same “tough-on-crime” practices (more police, harsher sentences) in effect for the past 50 years. They haven’t worked and they cause untold damage to many more individuals and families in the process. It’s time to exercise some imagination (just as the “defund police” initiatives ask us to do) and instead take a more holistic approach to crime: addressing the social ills that cause people to commit crimes in the first place, and creating conditions in prisons and jails that truly rehabilitate rather than dehumanize (thus contributing to the risk of recidivism).

The D.C. Council took a huge first step toward a new approach when it unanimously voted for a budget that strips the district’s police force of roughly $15 million — thus making more funds available for community programs. In response, Bowser and Police Chief Peter Newsham charged that the council’s action would “make the district less safe” by cutting the number of officers by 200–300 and lengthening response time. They failed to examine whether those officers are always the best people to intervene in the first place.

This is the problem: Retribution and punishment have become so ingrained as the only effective tools for responding to crime and unrest that each incident or uptick in violence inspires louder calls for the “hammer to come down.” Proponents of these tactics use fear mongering to keep the public emotionally invested in punishment as the primary response to risk. Murders and other crimes are hyped to the point that residents are made vividly and constantly aware of just how “unsafe” they are.

Davon McNeil

Case in point: One of the tragic deaths that occurred over the 4th of July weekend was the shooting of 11-year-old child Davon McNeil in D.C. — a total innocent caught in a gang-related exchange of fire. Before I make my point, let me say that Davon’s death stung me to my core. He was killed right in front of the apartment building in which I used to live; he very well could have been my son. So, I understand why a local restaurant owner told a reporter: “It’s scary and outrageous if in plain daylight this thing can happen.”

But while cracking harder with the “whip” feels satisfying when you’re in pain or afraid, we should examine the evidence of actual crime deterred vs. damage done to the many people affected by lives wasted behind bars, well beyond any actual danger to society. According to the Sentencing Project, only about a quarter of overall reductions in crime can be attributed to incarceration, and it may be as low as 5%. Also important are community-based anti-crime initiatives and expanded economic opportunities.

I have spent plenty of time pondering how and why the loss of our children’s lives has become so common in our communities. I even went so far as to hold several groups with my mentees in the D.C. jail to get a feel for what they thought about what is needed. We didn’t come up with any definitive answers, but what I do know is that it’s time to try something different than police and harsher sentences. The murders that occurred this month all happened with a full police force on the streets and thousands of offenders locked behind bars, supposedly keeping everyone safer. Why keep digging ourselves deeper into this rabbit hole?

Yet this type of reasoning and rhetoric are what fuels mass incarceration. It’s the specter of Willie Horton all over again. For those who need reminding: Horton was an African-American prisoner in Massachusetts who, while released on a furlough program, raped a white Maryland woman and bound and stabbed her boyfriend. George Bush’s presidential campaign and supporters leveraged the case to take down his Democratic opponent, Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis. The charge: Dukakis was insufficiently tough on crime since he had permitted the furlough.

Ever since then, any politician or political appointee is afraid to release anyone, in fear he or she will commit another crime. That’s the reason cited by U.S. Attorney Jessica Liu and her staff last year when they fought so virulently an expansion of the D.C. Council’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), which allows individuals imprisoned at a young age a “second look” after serving at least 15 years. She cited the most heinous crimes she could find among this cohort of people, using them to scare the public into believing their lives would be at risk because the bill would release killers and rapists back into their communities. She didn’t share stories of the many more people who are released from prison and go on to lead productive lives while supporting their families — including those who originally committed murder as still-developing young people. (In fact, none of the 42 individuals released under IRAA to date have committed any further crimes, and several now are active in preventing crime through various programs.)

Unfortunately, we will never be able to eradicate crime. And the belief that we can punish our way out of a crime problem is not based on any sound evidence — much less an acceptable moral code. We need to start changing the stories we tell to include the full range. When a police officer kills an innocent citizen, we are told it is wrong to label the entire police force as bad. (Instead, it’s a few “bad apples,” goes the narrative.) Why is it that every time one person gets released from jail early on parole, personal recognizance or bond and commits a crime, we’re told he represents every other person who was ever incarcerated? Why are we not talking about all of the murders the violence interrupters (like James Dunn, a friend who was recently released from prison himself) prevent from happening through their work in troubled communities? And there are many other success stories.

A hundred people could be released via IRAA and 99 of them could go on to make all types of positive contributions to society. But if just one of them commits another violent crime, we will talk only about the one instead of the 99.

This has got to change. No remedy is perfect. But we have empirical data from over the past 50 years that definitely shows us… WE CAN’T PUNISH OR POLICE CRIME AWAY!

A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at paminprogress@gmail.com.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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