Leaving Mass Incarceration Behind: How Cities Are Turning to a Public Health Approach to Violence

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Cities won’t solve homicides and other public safety challenges unless they identify strategies that address violence effectively.

(Getty Images)
The United States is responsible for nearly 22 percent of the world’s prison population, yet our embrace of mass incarceration hasn’t reduced the rate of violent crime in many parts of this country. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and Marc Schindler.

As the Justice Policy Institute lays out in Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America’s Approach to Violent Crime, cities need to embrace a series of policy changes that will reduce jail and prison populations and free up funds to support more effective public safety approaches. If we can reexamine our whole approach to violent crime, and not just look at it through a traditional law and order lens, we can find the dollars to build safer and healthier communities across America’s great cities.

In our roles as an elected city councilmember and a former head of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, we both understand that our city faces challenges with violence in our neighborhoods. This fact gained more attention recently when Washington joined two dozen cities that closed out 2015 with a significant increase in homicides. But the reality is that, even though crime is down substantially from the 1990s and may end this year at lower rates, many communities in our city face unacceptable levels of violence on a regular basis.

The data show that some parts of our community have been more impacted by crime than others. Just three police districts accounted for most of the growth in homicides in the District, including Ward 5, where both of us live. Our Ward and the other parts of our city most impacted by the spike in homicides are also places where unemployment is higher, and where the city is facing greater challenges improving educational outcomes, adding jobs, and treating addiction. Combine these factors with easy access to lethal firearms and we have the perfect recipe for violent crime.

We know who is most impacted by crime – largely poor communities of color – and we know what research tells us about what works and what doesn’t work to reduce crime. That is why policymakers in this city rejected ineffective responses to crime, such as lengthening sentences and increasing incarceration.

Instead, the Council of the District of Columbia voted unanimously to take a public health approach to violence prevention. This approach, which D.C. and other cities are working to develop, would respond to violence as we respond to other national epidemics: starting by treating the causes of crime, and then by reducing the harm associated with it. We know that there are community-level solutions that can stop violence from spreading and help build safer communities.

Under the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Amendment (NEAR) Act of 2016, the city would establish offices that coordinate our response to violent crime, and place specially trained staff in emergency rooms to respond to the needs of victims and to help prevent the escalation of violence. The NEAR Act allows teenagers and young adults at the highest risk for committing or being victims of violent crime to participate in a program that supports them as they engage with community workers in life planning and services designed to address the trauma associated with violence.

District policymakers face similar challenges as our colleagues in Baltimore and Chicago around bringing a public health approach to violence prevention to scale. Much of what was imagined under the NEAR Act and by city departments has not yet been fully funded. Chicago’s public health model has been impacted by various budget cuts, and the prevention continuum has been dramatically impacted by the Illinois state budget crisis. Baltimore’s public health approach was defunded by the city, only to be restored by a grant from the State of Maryland – and only through the end of the year.

Violence and crime are local challenges – and because they understand our neighborhoods and our people best, local governments must be at the forefront of developing policy solutions.

About the Authors: 

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is the Chairperson of the Committee on the Judiciary of the Council of the District of Columbia.

 

Marc Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute, and a former head of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.