Eighty-three murders in 2019. Eighty-four in 2018.
Something has to give. Law abiding citizens are beyond tired. They are exhausted. Utterly, completely, and totally exhausted. And it feels as if their exhaustion, their desperation, is completely unheard and unappreciated by the powers that be.
When the city addresses this ongoing crisis – if it even bothers to address it, and that is a big question for many – I suspect its comments will primarily focus on lack of economic opportunity. Lack of economic opportunity is one of many factors in the crime equation but, importantly, one over which a local government has very little control, and certainly very little control in the short-term (its importance can also be debated because there are numerous areas around the world with similar poverty rates and access to guns that do not have similar crime rates). It may also deflect towards the nature of domestic disturbances and disturbances among acquaintances and how, in those instances, it is impossible for law enforcement to foresee the dispute and prevent the crime (even though all of these murders and all of our other crimes are not of the domestic or acquaintance disturbance variety).
But I also predict the city will continue to entirely neglect to confront the factors over which the city and county have complete control: the declining numbers of law enforcement to patrol and - perhaps most importantly - the timely prosecution of cases. Patrol staffing levels appear to be at historic lows. Patrols matter. Police presence matters. The problem of timely prosecution is well-known and affects not only law enforcement efforts to control crime, but also, and very importantly, the civil rights of the accused who often sit in jail for unacceptably long periods of time before being brought to trial.
It seems that every lay person in the street knows of these issues and how we are entirely lacking in these areas, yet it is the elephant in the room that is not touched by the powers that be. Why is that?
We can wax philosophically all we want about larger economic issues and their impact on crime – and those can be very real. We can deflect to how law enforcement cannot time-transport itself into the middle of every domestic disturbance to prevent its occurrence, and that is true. But until we control what we can control (such as the numbers of police patrolling and timely prosecuting of cases), economic philosophical musings and deflections to the inability to prevent domestic and acquaintance disturbances ring hollow.
A tripartite approach of swiftness, certainty, and an appropriate degree of severity is a well-known framework for approaching criminal justice issues. Swiftness of prosecution and, if found guilty, punishment; certainty that if found guilty, punishment will follow; and an appropriate degree of severity to fit the crime. We could use more of this here. Currently we have none of it. It is not a panacea, but it is a start.
I am an adamant supporter of criminal justice reform. America’s criminal justice system collectively was indiscriminately and excessively punitive through at least the 1980s and 1990s, and we are now paying high societal and economic costs for decades of irresponsibility and callousness in how we approached criminal justice.
But there is a balance to everything. Our city and county have approached criminal justice from a place so far off the spectrum that it defies categorization. Suburbanites often term it “left” or “liberal,” but that is not accurate. It is not operating from a philosophical perspective; it’s just not functioning. We need to redirect the ship. We can start with the basics: enforcement, and the prosecution of cases.
We are about to have a new district attorney, and that brings great promise for positive change. His predecessor has left him an enormous job of clean-up. Law abiding citizens are literally begging for help.
This column appeared in the Clarion Ledger on January 7, 2020.