Alternatives III: The Justice System

excerpted from the book

Crime and Punishment in America

Why solutions to America's most stubborn social crisis have not worked - and what will

by Elliott Currie

Henry Holt, 1998, paper



An enduring response to violent crime ... means making a sustained attack on the social deficits that breed it. It also means rethinking the purposes of our criminal justice system.

I've argued that we cannot rely on the justice system to control crime and that our recent attempt to do so has been a dismal failure. But that doesn't mean that the justice system's role in a broader strategy against crime is unimportant. The problem is not just that we have asked too much of the justice system, but that we have asked the wrong things. It is not just that we spend too much on criminal justice as opposed to other social needs, but that we spend unwisely and heedlessly, and as a result the justice system itself is badly out of balance. We have largely ignored its considerable potential to prevent crime, rather than to react to crime after the fact. We have too often used the justice system as little more than a dumping ground, a repository for the casualties of a depriving and volatile social order. This isn't a new problem; what is new is the widespread acceptance, even celebration, of the idea that the criminal justice system's role should be a strictly punitive one. Just as we've come to accept a high level of violence as a normal part of social life, we've come to accept a reactive and custodial justice system as the best we can do. That is partly because many believe that people who break the law don't deserve anything better. But it is also a reflection of the widespread myth that we do not know how to use our justice system for anything other than punishment.

This myth, like the others we've encountered, is wrong. Though the criminal justice system's ability to prevent crime may be limited, within those limits it has considerable potential to reduce crime much more effectively than it does now. But to make the most of that potential, we need to rethink what it is we want the justice system to accomplish and to allocate our resources accordingly.

This is not the place to lay out a detailed blueprint for reforming the justice system, from policing to parole. But let me suggest several principles that ought to guide us as we work to build a revitalized and progressive criminal justice system for the next century-one that does the best possible job of protecting us from serious crime while also affirming our best values as a civilization. The justice system should emphasize preventing crime, not simply reacting to it; it should strive, insofar as possible, to reintegrate offenders into society, not simply contain them. We should make the reduction of violence-not simply the punishment of people whose behavior may offend us-our top priority; and we should link that goal to a broader strategy to attack the conditions that breed violence in the first place. Three tasks are especially urgent: investing in rehabilitation, rethinking sentencing, and reducing violence in the community through more effective police strategies.


Until the mid-1970s, it was widely argued that the criminal justice system ought to be more than just a place for punishment, and more than a place to warehouse the consequences of social neglect.

No one doubted that we needed prisons, or that one of the reasons for using prisons was punishment. But our goal, at least in theory, was higher: the correctional system, we believed, should do its best to prepare inmates for a productive life on the outside. The reasoning wasn't only humanitarian; it was also hardheaded. Most people who went to prison would, after all, eventually come out, and it made sense, from every vantage point, to see to it that they came out in better shape than when they went in. Common sense, fiscal responsibility, and social vision merged to put a high priority on "rehabilitation. "

This, at least, was the theory. In practice, rehabilitation was never much more than a distant vision in America's justice system. It is often said that we tried rehabilitation in the 1950s and 1960s, and it failed. Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters go so far as to say that the justice system has been "emasculated" by "the notion that the first purpose of punishment is to rehabilitate criminals." But that is a stunning revision of history. Even at the height of the Great Society era, the commitment to rehabilitation in the prisons was shallow at best; in many states, it was virtually nonexistent. Listen to what the President's crime commission had to say in 1967:

The most striking fact about the correctional apparatus today is that, although the rehabilitation of criminals is presumably its major purpose, the custody of criminals is actually its major task.... What this emphasis on custody means in practice is that the enormous potential of the correctional apparatus for making creative decisions about its treatment of convicts is largely unfulfilled.

In general, the commission complained, the correctional "apparatus was "often used-or misused-by both the criminal justice system and the public as a rug under which disturbing problems and people can be swept."

Today, the situation is much worse. As we have crammed more and more offenders into prison, we have simultaneously retreated from the already minimal commitment to help them reenter productive society. Indeed, many states have moved beyond their traditional indifference to rehabilitation and now embrace what some criminologists call "penal harm"-the self-conscious use of "tough" measures to inflict pain and deprivation on inmates in the name of retribution and deterrence. The pragmatic (if mostly rhetorical) support for rehabilitation has been pushed aside by an angry reaction to anything that might seem to "coddle" criminals. One sign of this shift is the reemergence of chain gangs, punitive and degrading inmate labor, and prison stripes. Another is the increasing criticism of job training, education, and even drug treatment in prison as frills that make life too easy for inmates. And so we continue, as in the 1960s, to recycle offenders from unproductive confinement to unsupportive, chaotic communities and back again, but now with a certain self-righteous satisfaction that we are doing so in the interests of justice and morality.

What is most frustrating about the virtual abandonment of the commitment to rehabilitation is that it comes just as we are increasingly learning that rehabilitation can work. Once again, there are no magic remedies. But we do know that we can turn around the lives of many-not all-of the people who must spend some time behind bars. We have learned enough, indeed, that we can now move beyond the sterile debate about whether rehabilitation "works" in the abstract to the more specific question of what exactly works, why it works, and for whom. As with prevention programs outside prison walls, there are some common principles running through the most promising efforts. In particular, recent research makes clear that the "holistic" or comprehensive approach that often characterizes the best crime-prevention programs aimed at vulnerable children, youths, and families is what works best for rehabilitating prisoners as well. Offenders come into the prisons with quite tangible problems, what one specialist calls "criminogenic needs." If we fail to address those problems, we shouldn't be surprised if released offenders fail on the outside. If we do address them, we may be able to change their lives. Consider two examples where the evidence of success is strongest: drug treatment for prisoners and "graduated reentry" into society for violent juvenile offenders.

The need for effective drug treatment for prisoners is obvious enough. Experts estimate that as many as 50 to 60 percent of state prison inmates have a drug problem sufficiently severe to warrant treatment. Yet only a fraction now receive any treatment at all, even under the most lenient definition of what treatment means- and far fewer get the kind of intensive, prolonged treatment that is most likely to make a difference. In 1996, California, with an inmate population of over 145,000, up to 70 percent of them serious drug abusers, had only 400 drug-treatment beds in its entire prison system (since then a 1200-bed treatment facility has been added). Some states do better, as does the federal prison system. But the overall picture is bleak.

Here too, it's important to be tough-minded. Not all drug treatment works, in or out of prison; and no treatment works well unless it is offered with sufficient intensity and continuity. But the most effective programs have shown substantial success in keeping offenders out of crime once they leave prison. What works best, on the evidence, is intensive residential treatment in prison followed by comprehensive aftercare in the community. One impressive recent example is the Key program in Delaware, which has been studied by the University of Delaware criminologist James Inciardi.

The Key program enrolled prisoners in a separate, residential treatment unit within the state's main prison for twelve to fifteen months of treatment, followed by six months of aftercare-which included continued drug treatment and job training-in a transitional house in the community. Among a comparison group of prisoners who did not participate in either phase of the program, 70 percent were rearrested over the course of eighteen months. Of those offenders who went through the in-prison program but not the aftercare, 52 percent were rearrested. Another group, which received only the aftercare program, were rearrested at a rate of 35 percent-suggesting that the aftercare experience, though relatively short, may have had the most impact. Finally, only 29 percent of those who went through both the prison and the aftercare phases were rearrested within eighteen months.

Narrowing the gap between the need and the availability of treatment is especially important for women behind bars. We've seen that women are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, and most of the increase is accounted for by drug offenders and women sentenced for property crimes related to their drug use. Yet the majority of those women lack access to drug treatment of any kind, much less the kind of continuum from residential treatment through aftercare that characterizes the best treatment programs for prisoners. It would be hard to come up with a more self-defeating policy than this one-to pack the prisons and jails with women whose main problem is their drug abuse and then systematically ignore their need for treatment.

The principle of providing a continuum of care from custody to the community also underlies the most promising efforts to reintegrate serious young offenders. The Violent Juvenile Offender program (VJO) was launched in 1980 under the auspices of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in response to the inadequacies of the conventional handling of chronically violent youths. Unlike most programs for juvenile offenders, VJO was explicitly based on well-established criminological theories about why youths become involved in violence in the first place and it sought to address the major obstacles to reintegration suggested by these theories. In particular, VJO was designed to strengthen the bonds that linked youths to "prosocial" institutions-their families, the workplace, the school, and "straight" peers. Those goals were to be accomplished by a much more concerted, individualized, and intensive approach than was usual in juvenile justice. A key feature of the program was its emphasis on "graduated reentry." Skilled case managers would guide youths through three phases: first, pre-release training inside the institution, then aftercare in a transitional living situation outside the prison walls; and finally reentry into self-sustaining life in the community. Providing tangible services, including job placement, was a central part of this process.

The project operated in four cities in the early 1980s: Boston, Detroit, Memphis, and Newark. As is usually the case, practice departed considerably from theory. The amount of help given to offenders at the various sites differed considerably. The Newark site barely got off the ground at all. In Boston and Detroit, where the program was implemented consistently and well, the results were impressive: the program lowered rates of reoffending among this very tough, chronically violent population substantially, as compared to a control group, and even those who did reoffend took longer to do so. One of the most important ingredients of the success in Boston and Detroit was linking youths to real job placements with subsidized salaries. Where VJO worked, then, it seems to have worked in much the same way, and for much the same reasons, as some of the prevention programs (like multisystemic therapy) we examined in chapter 3. The case managers approach was hands-on and individualized; it addressed the whole range of the youths' relations with community and family and, at its best, offered tangible opportunities to change young offenders' lives for the better.

But despite the evidence of effectiveness, these principles- comprehensive, intensive treatment coupled with aftercare-have only rarely been put into practice for juveniles, much less for adults. Critics often complain that the juvenile justice system focuses too much on rehabilitation, at the expense of "tough" responses to youth crime. Yet a recent survey by the National Association of Child Advocates found that, on average, 60 percent of state juvenile justice spending goes to house youth in institutions, and only 4 percent to aftercare programs for young offenders.

Indeed, such is the punitive character of our current response to young people in trouble that even the most basic services are in short supply. Half of the country's juvenile facilities are in violation of federal and state laws that require at least minimal education for incarcerated minors. This situation is sometimes defended on the grounds that young people who have broken the law don't deserve a level of schooling that even many law-abiding youngsters may not get. But it would be difficult to imagine a more self-defeating stance: if we want to ensure that young offenders commit more- and worse-crimes, this is surely one way to do it.

Nor is this problem confined to juveniles. The same self-defeating impulse has led to a radical deterioration in post-secondary education programs throughout the adult prisons. In 1994, over half of state prison systems reported that they had made cuts in inmate education programs during the preceding five years, and some had eliminated them altogether. The 1994 federal Omnibus Crime Bill, which eliminated federal "Pell Grant" funding for prison education programs, accelerated the decline. Between 1994 and 1995 alone, the number of state prison inmates enrolled in post-secondary education dropped from 38,000 to 21,000-this in a population of close to 1 million. As of the 1994-1995 academic year, about half of state prison systems offered some kind of baccalaureate program: by the following year, only a third did.

There is still much to learn. We know less than we should about how to design effective rehabilitation programs because we have not launched enough of them to allow us to learn from our achievements and failures. And it is especially important not to overstate the case for the programs that now exist. Much that goes under the rubric of rehabilitation really doesn't work, at least not well; and on close inspection there is little reason why it should. Few of these programs have been rooted in any clear theory of why offenders got the way they are or what they need in order to change; those that have been based on clear principles are often weakly implemented and short-lived. We then evaluate the programs, discover-not surprisingly-that they don't make much difference, and conclude that all we can do is to warehouse offenders in cells.

These cautions apply with special force to some programs that come under the heading of "intermediate sanctions"-punishments that fall somewhere between simple probation and incarceration, including boot-camp prisons, electronic monitoring of offenders, home confinement, and intensive surveillance by probation or parole officers. Many of these programs are politically popular; they are often lauded as being both "tough" and inexpensive. Unfortunately, they are also mostly ineffective. A growing number of evaluation studies, for example, have found little evidence that the typical boot-camp approach-which usually involves putting young offenders through a regime of quasi-military discipline for a few months and then releasing them into unchanged communities-has any effect on recidivism. Studies of electronic monitoring and home confinement generally show similarly limited results, as do evaluations of most intensive supervision programs, which are designed to tighten control over offenders through increased contacts with parole officers, frequent drug testing, and other measures. A careful study of "intensively supervised probation" (ISP) programs conducted by the RAND corporation in the early 1990s, for example, found that most had little, if any, impact on recidivism.

Overall, what these studies suggest, not for the first time, is that the quest for the quick fix is illusory: programs that promise fast results at low cost, but in practice deliver nothing more than new forms of monitoring and punishment, are unlikely to be successful. By themselves, as Francis Cullen, John Paul Wright, and Brandon Applegate put it in a comprehensive review, "surveillance and control appear to have little impact on offender recidivism." On reflection, that isn't very surprising: simply forcing people on probation to undergo regular drug testing, for example, without simultaneously offering them serious treatment for their addiction is obviously a prescription for failure.

On the other hand, in the relatively rare instances where intermediate sanctions also include a systematic effort to address offenders' underlying problems-where the programs adopt an explicit commitment to rehabilitation-the results are often much more encouraging. RAND's study of intensive probation, for example, found reductions in recidivism in those ISP programs that offered clients some form of treatment. Evaluations of the bootcamp program in New York State, which has a much stronger emphasis on treatment and reintegration of offenders than those in most other states, also note more positive results, at least in the short run.

Finally, what holds for prevention programs outside the justice system applies inside as well: even the best efforts at rehabilitation of offenders will be undermined unless they are linked to a broader strategy to improve conditions in the communities to which offenders will return. We won't be able to place young offenders in jobs if the jobs don't exist. (For that matter, it's unrealistic to expect much public support for that kind of investment when many law-abiding youths can't get jobs either.) We know that intensive drug treatment for inmates can make a difference, but we also know from years of research that the likelihood of long-term freedom from relapse is slim without the support of a steady job and a stable family. The VJO researchers emphasize this point in assessing both the virtues and the limits of their program: the reintegration of young offenders into productive society, they remind us, requires "the availability of concrete alternatives and opportunities."

One reason why rehabilitation became so widely discredited after the 1970s is that it was tagged as "soft" on criminals. But in the most effective rehabilitation programs, the opposite is true.

Our current practice of simply recycling offenders from institutional warehouses to blighted communities and back again without serious attention to their underlying needs is certainly punitive; and it may help to soothe public anger about crime. But it also makes few if any demands on offenders to change their ways or to do their part to confront and overcome the problems that brought them into prison in the first place. We say, with much self-righteousness, that people who "do the crime" should "do the time." But though doing the time may be painful, by itself it asks nothing of the prisoner. A reintegrative approach, on the other hand, insists that inmates take responsibility for their futures-that they get clean, learn a skill, learn to read, learn to manage their anger, and, where possible, help to provide restitution for their victims. In effect, a serious commitment to rehabilitation represents a kind of contract between inmates and society. We agree to provide the tools that can help offenders "make it" in legitimate society; offenders agree to learn to use them. We should ask nothing less.


Building a reintegrative justice system, however, also requires us to reopen the question of whom we are putting in prison and what we hope to accomplish by doing so. We need to ask whether all of the people who are now incarcerated really ought to be behind bars, and for how long; and how different states are faring under different sentencing regimes. It may come as a surprise that we now know astonishingly little about any of these questions, but it is true. For the most part, the rush to incarcerate has been both indiscriminate and conducted with an astonishing absence of serious evaluation. It is more than a little odd that some of the same people who would scrutinize every penny of spending on, say, a job-training initiative or a rehabilitation program for delinquents have been more than willing to throw money at untested and unevaluated sentencing reforms that collectively amount to one of the largest governmental efforts at social engineering of our time. We need to bring to the enterprise of punishment some of the hard-nosed accounting we routinely apply to other kinds of government spending.

Some people would respond that there is no need to examine these issues, because virtually everyone now in prison is there for good reason, and their sentences are, if anything, far too short. It is common to read, for example, that 94 percent of state prison inmates are either violent or repeat offenders-which implies, of course, that all of them belong there. That figure-popularized by Princeton's John DiIulio and repeated over and over again in the popular press-is technically correct. But it is also disingenuous, since it glosses over what, exactly, the repeaters were repeating. In the state prisons, at last count, about one in five inmates had neither current nor prior convictions for any violent crime; though many of them are indeed repeaters, they are nonviolent repeaters. In the federal prison system, similarly, roughly one in five inmates have been sentenced for offenses that are both minor and nonviolent, mainly low-level drug crimes. The criminologist Joan Petersilia of the University of California at Irvine has calculated that, as of the early 1990s, about 26 percent of new admissions to California's state prisons were for technical violations of parole (like failing to show up for an appointment with a parole officer), minor property crimes, or administrative parole violations involving minor drug offenses. At the end of 1995, California's prisons held over 6,000 inmates sentenced for what, in law-enforcement jargon, is called "petty with a prior"-petty theft with a prior conviction for another crime of theft. Over 12,000 more were sentenced for simple drug possession. Incarcerating these two groups of offenders costs California taxpayers about a quarter of a billion dollars a year.

The usual justification for incarcerating so many offenders who have been convicted of minor crimes is that they are actually very dangerous people, whatever the nature of their current offense (or that the current offense has been "pled down" from something much more serious). And that is doubtless true for some of them. But how many? And should the rest be in state or federal prison? If so, for how long? If not, where should they be? A handful of studies in individual states have tried to answer these questions. So far, they suggest that though the number of truly non-dangerous people in prison may be less than some critics of incarceration have argued, it is more than defenders of our current sentencing practices have acknowledged.

One of the consequences of our too-quick resort to incarceration, paradoxically, is that we are not tough enough on some kinds of minor offenders who could benefit from more stringent, but also more constructive, sanctions. The movement to establish special drug courts in many cities both illustrates the problem and suggests one kind of solution. The war on drugs has flooded the courts, jails, and prisons with low-level drug offenders who pose little danger to the community. What usually happens now is that large numbers of those offenders are shunted into institutions, where they receive no serious help with their addiction, and are then dumped back into the community without any improvement in their prospects for successful reintegration. That is obviously a recipe for futility, and it results in a depressing-and costly-cycle of repeated incarceration and petty crime. The drug court- pioneered in cities like Miami and Oakland-is designed to stop that cycle by keeping minor drug offenders out of jail while using the threat of jail to push them into treatment. Those who successfully complete a treatment program have their charges dropped.

Like the most effective rehabilitation programs inside the prisons, the drug court, at its best, establishes a kind of contract with the offender. Freedom is contingent on making a serious effort to change. Breaking the law, therefore, has real consequences, but ones that are designed to help offenders take responsibility for their lives. For many of the people who wind up in drug court, taking on that challenge is much harder than simply "doing the time" in a jail or prison yet again, which is why some prefer to go to jail rather than undergo the rigors of the drug court's program. Drug courts are not a panacea, and they will not live up to their potential unless we also invest more in treatment facilities that are usually inadequate in most cities that have established drug courts. But they are a creative response to the twin problems of overincarceration and neglect, and the principles they embody may apply to other kinds of low-level offenders as well.

The needless and costly incarceration of less serious offenders, moreover, is only one side of the problem. Another is the dangerously clumsy way in which our current approach to sentencing handles the most violent offenders. The rush to ever more rigid mandatory sentences has sharply reduced discretion in the justice system, and that cuts two ways. It means that many minor offenders, who might be released if they were given an individualized evaluation, are now indiscriminately sent to prison. But it also weakens the systems ability to isolate those offenders who-even on their first crime-clearly pose enough of a threat to require long-term separation from the community. As a result, we may let truly violent people out of prison more quickly than we do relatively minor drug offenders. That is an invitation to tragedy, and coming up with a better approach is one of the genuinely tough challenges for a more progressive criminal justice system. Some observers have suggested that we need to return to a greater degree of "indeterminate" sentencing-restoring to judges the discretion to invoke open-ended sentences for particularly dangerous offenders. That strategy raises formidable and troubling questions of its own; for now, the point is that we need to slow down long enough to put those questions on the table. In California, recent legislation has established a sentencing commission that will examine that issue, among others. Something similar is needed at the national level. We should establish a national commission to review our current sentencing practices, assess what we know about their impact on crime rates and on our communities, and evaluate possible alternatives. We've barely begun to ask these questions, in the current climate, much less answer them.


A third priority is to shift criminal justice resources toward promising community-oriented policing strategies. I've argued that criminologists have generally been on target in their analysis of the limits of incarceration and in their understanding of the links between social exclusion and violent crime. They have been less so when it comes to the potential of the police. For years, conventional criminological wisdom held that there was little the police could do to prevent crime. That conclusion was based on sparse evidence, notably from a handful of studies of the effects of minor variations in conventional police patrol tactics. But as far back as the 1970s, there was scattered but suggestive evidence that some police strategies could prevent crime-at least in the short term. And today our sense of what the police can do is changing rapidly. We now have intriguing signs that the way the police operate may matter a great deal.

It is important not to take this point too far. The recent sharp declines in crime in New York City, for example, are often attributed to the more intensive police practices adopted since the early 1990s, and that is doubtless true to some extent. But no one knows exactly how much of the decline is the result of new police strategies, and how much reflects other factors-such as shifts in drug use and drug dealing, the spread of prevention programs, or changes in young people's attitudes about violence. Some other cities have enjoyed substantial declines in street crime in the same period without adopting similar police practices (Los Angeles is one major example). And even if we grant that something the New York police are doing is partly responsible for declining crime rates, it is not yet clear what, exactly, that something is. Many people believe that the "zero tolerance" or "quality of life" approach to disorder-"rousting" youth on street corners, moving the homeless or assertive "squeegee men" off the street, and so on-is responsible for the declines in violent crime. But little evidence has been offered to support that view, and there is much to argue against it. "Zero tolerance" policing tends to sweep large numbers of low-level offenders into the justice system and, typically, to recycle them quickly back to the street with little else done to change their lives. To be sure, some genuinely dangerous people may be caught up in the net. And it is certainly plausible that cracking down on minor offenders and on community disorder can have an indirect impact on more serious crime by generally improving the quality of neighborhood life. But it is much less plausible to argue that this approach could bring reductions in homicide and other serious crimes of violence that are not only dramatically large, but larger than those for less serious offenses.

A much stronger case can be made for other policing strategies that, unlike "zero tolerance," focus directly on some of the most important sources of community violence. Efforts to get guns off the street and to target open-air drug markets and violent drug gangs exemplify this approach, and may be the most important ingredient of police successes in New York and elsewhere. These strategies are based on some important realities about the distribution of violent crime in the cities that we've only recently begun to appreciate. One is that a very large proportion of violent crime is concentrated in a handful of high-crime neighborhoods, often in a few specific "hot spots" within those neighborhoods. And within those high-crime areas, violence is disproportionately likely to be the work of repeat offenders carrying guns. Accordingly, focusing police attention on gun carrying in high-crime neighborhoods can, in theory, have a concentrated impact on crime.

And some promising recent research suggests that the theory is correct. The clearest evidence comes from a study by Lawrence Sherman and his colleagues of a police crackdown on guns in a high-crime area of Kansas City in the early 1990s. A team of officers was assigned to a "target" beat with a homicide rate twenty times the national average. Their strategy was to ferret out illegal weapons, mainly by intensifying traffic stops of suspicious cars to search for guns. (One of the experiment's more disturbing findings was that about one out of every twenty-eight traffic stops turned up at least one illegal firearm.)

Apparently, the intensive focus on guns worked. Gun crime in the target beat was 49 percent lower during the six months of the experiment than in the six months before it began. There were other encouraging findings as well. One common limitation of similar police crackdowns has been that they often "displace" crime to other parts of a city, rather than reducing it overall. But that did not seem to happen in the Kansas City experiment. Neighboring police beats did not suffer significant increases in gun crime during the period of the experiment, and some had decreases- suggesting, if anything, that the positive effects may have "spilled over" from the experimental beat to adjoining neighborhoods.

There are limits to the Kansas City findings-for one thing, the follow-up period was quite short-but they suggest what may be possible if police forces concentrate their efforts on the most critical sources of a city's violence problem. Doing so may help to break the self-perpetuating cycle of guns, violence, and fear in the most stricken inner-city neighborhoods. Much gun violence- especially among youths-is defensive: young people carry guns because others are carrying them, and, rightly or wrongly, they believe that arming themselves in response will protect them against potential assault. (In a 1996 poll, 2 out of 5 teenagers living in high-crime neighborhoods reported that they carried a weapon for protection.) Reversing that malign logic through a concerted effort at local disarmament could bring substantial benefits-especially if police departments work closely with other agencies to tackle the roots of concentrated gun violence in the cities.

Precisely this kind of partnership may help account for recent striking declines in gun-related youth violence in Boston. In response to an upsurge in youth homicides in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a coalition that included the city police, federal agencies, the probation and parole authorities, and a variety of community organizations came together to develop a coordinated strategy to target guns and those most likely to use them. Police and federal agents scrutinized local gun markets, tracking guns used in violent crimes back to their original source and cracking down on the gun dealers most responsible for allowing guns to fall into youthful hands. Analyzing patterns of youth homicide in the city, they found that it was heavily concentrated in a few high-crime gang "turfs," and that most of those involved-as offenders or as victims-had encountered the criminal justice system before. Police presence was beefed up in those areas; it was also made clear to gang youth that further violence would be followed by increasingly tough measures against probation or parole violations and increased arrests. Meanwhile, both public and nonprofit agencies worked to expand the opportunities available to youths vulnerable to the appeals of gangs and violence. The city opened a network of community centers staffed with street workers whose job was to reach out to gangs and to defuse potentially violent situations. The police department itself helped to create after-school programs, a youth basketball league, and a program offering summer jobs (and part-time school year jobs) to local youth. It is difficult to know exactly how much of the city's declines in youth violence can be attributed to this combined effort (other Massachusetts cities have also seen large drops in weapon-related violence among youth); but the early evidence suggests that it has had a significant impact, and in a very short time.

A number of other promising strategies also involve linking the police more closely with community residents-especially the young-in order to head off violence before it happens. In New Haven, for example, an innovative program brings police together with mental health workers from Yale University to work with children who have experienced violence at home or on the streets. The goal is to reduce the damage to childrens' development that often follows exposure to severe violence-damage that, as the New Haven team points out, may lead to more violence in the future:

When a child is exposed to violence on a regular basis, identifying with the power and excitement of delinquent and violent role models may become a chronic hedge against feeling helpless and afraid. When the most powerful models in the home and neighborhood exercise their potency with a fist or a gun, the lure of violent and criminal activity may overcome the power and rewards in productive participation in the life of the community.

Inner-city children are routinely exposed, often repeatedly, to serious violence (40 percent of sixth, eighth, and tenth graders in high-crime neighborhoods, in a 1992 survey, reported witnessing at least one violent crime in the preceding year). But few receive any systematic attention when it happens. In most cities, the traditional police response has been to arrive after the fact, gather information, and leave. If a child is seen at all by mental health professionals after a violent incident, it is usually long afterward. In the New Haven approach, police officers are trained in child development issues, and in turn mental health specialists spend time with police on the street getting to know the realities of both violence and .police work. Mental health workers provide a consultation service that enables police to refer children quickly to appropriate help; a team of clinicians is on call twenty-four hours a day, able to see children on the spot, if necessary, at the police station or in their homes.

The principles behind this kind of creative response are clear: to prevent violence in the future by making a supportive response to violence in the present, to ensure that youthful victims are not simply left to cope on their own, and, at best, to link immediate incidents of violence to the underlying problems that so often give rise to them, as in this example recounted by the Yale team:

A fifteen-year-old boy at the periphery of a drug-dealing operation was shot and killed in a crowded housing project.... In the following days, crowds of distraught teenagers gathered on the street at the scene of the killing, and local merchants and neighbors complained that they were causing a disturbance. The district police supervisor ... directed officers under his command not to arrest the youths and instead invited them to the local substation for a series of discussions focused on the grief associated with their friend's death and the general frustration and hopelessness regarding opportunities for young people in the community. Subsequent to these meetings, the supervisor contacted parents he knew and worked with them to organize a meeting for the teenagers with representatives of job training services.

Another promising police-community partnership, launched by the Washington-based Milton Eisenhower Foundation in the early 1990s, was inspired in part by Japanese examples. Many neighborhoods in Japanese cities have "kobans," mini-police stations staffed by officers who take a particularly active role in reaching out to community residents. Eisenhower built on this experience, setting up koban-style programs in four cities-Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Each site mixed community policing with a variety of youth development initiatives. The San Juan program, for example, operated in Caimito, an extremely poor neighborhood with high unemployment and school dropout rates. A well-established Puerto Rican nonprofit organization, Centro Sister Isolina Ferre, established a "campus" in Caimito that joined a neighborhood police koban with classrooms, small businesses, and recreation facilities. There were computer- and office skills training classes, day care, alternative schools for dropouts, health screenings and immunization for neighborhood children, and an after-school "safe haven" program for six- to twelve-year-olds.

Centro also hired "streetwise" young people to work as youth advocates (or "intercesores"), mediating among neighborhood youth, the schools, and the justice system. These advocates worked closely with the koban-based police, who would contact them when local youths were detained. In pursuit of what the foundation calls "community equity policing," the youth advocates and neighborhood residents worked as genuine partners with the police; community leaders even helped to select and train the koban-based officers. Estimating the impact of local programs like these on crime rates is intrinsically difficult, but a careful evaluation found that serious crimes fell significantly over four years of the program in Centro's target neighborhood-considerably moreso than in the city as a whole.

All of these innovative police strategies-from targeting illegal guns to working with grief-stricken victims of violence-share two basic themes. They are sharply focused, and they are explicitly preventive. They are not designed to intimidate unruly youths or to sweep troublesome or unsightly people off the street under a vague mandate to promote "order"; they target the sources of serious violence in the hardest-hit communities, and they try to address them before the violence erupts. Instead of simply acting as a mechanism to funnel offenders into the criminal justice system after they have already caused damage, the police work to keep crime from happening in the first place and to reduce its destructive consequences for individuals, families, and communities. This is a better way to think about policing, and it has much in common with the "holistic" approach of the most effective early intervention and youth development programs.

But to realize the potential of these innovative strategies, we will need to shift our priorities in criminal justice spending. It seems increasingly clear that the police are the part of our justice system with the greatest potential for making significant inroads against violent crime. But in many cities, police departments have been fiscally strapped for years while more and more funds have been diverted into the prisons.

Making a bigger investment in the police must also be accompanied by a stronger insistence that police departments be held accountable for what they do-a principle we are in danger of forgetting in the current enthusiasm for aggressive policing In New York, the adoption of assertive "quality of life" policing has gone hand in hand with growing numbers of police shootings and spectacular examples of excessive force and police harassment in minority communities. But there is no evidence that police must endanger lives and violate basic civil liberties in order to control crime. There is a difference between investing in smart, targeted policing strategies and simply giving the police free rein to run roughshod over the poor. Good police work can be an important addition to a broader arsenal of weapons against violent crime, but we must avoid the temptation to deploy the police as a cordon sanitaire to contain the urban problems we have chosen not to confront.

Despite the troubling drift of criminal justice policy in recent t; years, these new approaches-from drug courts to creative police community collaborations-represent the stirrings of a more hopeful vision of what the justice system might accomplish. And though they take a variety of forms, these emerging strategies share some common themes. One is that a central purpose of the criminal justice system should be what public health specialists call "harm reduction": it should emphasize preventing violence over simply punishing offenders after the fact, look for ways of neutralizing the factors-especially guns-that often cause troubles to escalate into tragedies, and defuse the settings in which violence is most likely, like open-air drug markets. Another theme is what we could call the principle of constructive consequences. The best of the new approaches to rehabilitation, for example, affirm that offenders should be held accountable for their behavior. But they should be held accountable in ways that promote enduring changes, breaking the futile cycle of offending, punishment, and reoffending by resolving the underlying problems (like drug addictions or lack of skills) that typically set it in motion. Both principles, if widely translated into practice, could take us several steps closer to a justice system that is at once more effective and more humane-and, for that matter, less expensive. As with prevention programs outside the justice system, the path seems increasingly clear. Whether we will follow it, of course, is a very different question.


... the state of California has opened only one college since 1984 -- and twenty-one prisons.

Crime and Punishment in America

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