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How the Justice System Can Transform NYC's ‘Murder Capital”

By Greg Berman

It has been a head-spinning couple of years for those of us who work in criminal justice in New York City.

Not long ago, if you asked the question “who is responsible?” in criminal justice circles, most people would think you were asking about who deserves the lion’s share of credit for the “New York miracle” that reduced the number of murders from a high of more than 2,200 in 1990 to less than 335 in 2013.

Of course, this is no longer the dominant story about criminal justice in this city.

Today, asking the question “who is responsible?” at a criminal justice conference would summon angry finger-pointing rather than warm pats on the back.

The past two years have been dominated by names like Kalief Browder and Eric Garner—along with growing concern about Rikers Island, the sprawling and problem-ridden jail complex, and about some of the tactics employed by the New York Police Department. Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, is in many ways the fulcrum between these two competing New York City narratives—one of triumph and one of despair.

DNAinfo recently called Brownsville the “murder capital” of New York. The neighborhood ranked dead last (out of 69 communities) for per capita homicide rate. In a 2010 survey of 800 local residents conducted by my agency, 80 percent of respondents identified guns, gangs, drugs, and assaults as the top community problems.

So crime remains one of the defining features of Brownsville.

Another defining feature, unsurprisingly, is the prevalence of incarceration.

According to the Justice Mapping Center, which specializes in using online maps to communicate justice challenges, the state of New York spends $40 million a year incarcerating people just from Brownsville. And these numbers don’t include the Brownsville residents who are held at Rikers Island each year.

The criminal justice system is not an abstraction in Brownsville: It is a daily fact of life.  Thousands of local residents are under probation or parole supervision. And police are a visible presence.

It is safe to say that familiarity has not led to fondness. The justice system enjoys depressingly low levels of community support in Brownsville. To give just one example, the community survey conducted by my agency found that only 16 percent of local residents characterized their relationship with police as positive.

How might things be turned around in Brownsville? What might we do differently in an effort to enhance public safety, to reduce the use of incarceration, and to improve public perceptions of justice?

We know that safety cannot be produced by the justice system alone. 

After all, our safest neighborhoods, whether rich or poor, don’t operate like police states, with officers lurking on every corner. As Jane Jacobs articulated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a crucial element of neighborhood safety is the availability of responsible “eyes on the street” and the willingness of neighbors to enforce local social norms and address conditions of disorder.

As currently constructed, the criminal justice system does precious little to encourage social cohesion in high-crime neighborhoods. Indeed, as we have seen in Brownsville, a great deal of conventional practice (over-aggressive enforcement and the misuse of incarceration in particular) tends to undermine the very elements that are crucial to healthy neighborhoods.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that in recent years a new set of reforms have emerged with  the potential to reduce offending, reengineer the relationship between the justice system and the public, and help activate a neighborhood’s capacity to help produce safety for itself.

One such reform is the community justice center model that we are attempting to implement in Brownsville.

The Brownsville Community Justice Center will be an official branch of the New York State Court System, handling minor offenses from the local precinct. Rather than relying on short-term jail as a response to crimes like shoplifting, vandalism and minor drug possession, the Justice Center judge will have access to an expansive menu of alternatives, including drug treatment, job training, and counseling.

The goal will be to change court outcomes for thousands of Brownsville residents each year.

Beyond a problem-solving courtroom, the Justice Center will also be home to an array of youth development and crime prevention programs designed to serve everyone in the community, regardless of whether they have a court case. These include a teen-led youth court offering leadership training to local young people, an anti-violence program that engages local residents in spreading a message of peace, and the Belmont Revitalization Project, which seeks to beautify and redesign an area that has been a magnet for crime.

The Brownsville Community Justice Center has been endorsed by the Brooklyn District Attorney, the Chief Judge of New York, the Commissioner of the New York Police Department, and the Mayor of New York City, among others.

One reason these officials have signed on to the idea of community justice in Brownsville is that they have seen it work before in Red Hook—another Brooklyn neighborhood that has endured similar challenges. According to independent evaluators, the Red Hook Community Justice Center has succeeded in reducing both recidivism and the use of jail while changing public attitudes toward the justice system.

We are still a couple of years away from fully realizing the vision of a community justice center for Brownsville. The project has to go through the city’s land-use review process before construction work can begin on a state-of-the-art courthouse.

But with any luck, Brownsville will soon be a living example of a new kind of New York miracle—one that not only reduces crime and incarceration, but engages the community and bolsters the legitimacy of justice in a place where it has been badly tarnished for generations.

Greg Berman is the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City and the author of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform. He welcomes comments from readers.

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A Pivotal Season For Justice, Or Just More Talk?

By Ted Gest

Will this Fall prove to be a pivotal one for criminal justice in the United States, or just another flurry of talk with little decisive action?

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced its most significant bill in years on federal crime, one that could roll back many categories of mandatory sentences that have helped pack prisons and strain the Justice Department's budget.

A few hours later, President Barack Obama welcomed to the White House a new group of police chiefs and prosecutors who have vowed to support  steps that would reduce mass incarceration. Next week, as part of a national tour on justice issues, the President will address the largest law enforcement organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

His speech promises to be far different from a presidential address exactly 21 years ago this month to the same group. At that time, President Bill Clinton sought the police chiefs' support for a massive federal crime bill that would bring more police officers, prison cells, "three strikes and you're out" penalties, and capital punishment.

Now, crime rates are much lower, violence isn't as big a political issue as it was in the early 1990s, Washington has less money to spend, and Clinton has expressed regret for parts of the law he championed.

Based on what Obama said yesterday and in his weekly address last weekend, the first chief executive to visit federal prisoners will ask the police chiefs for a more balanced approach that pays as much attention to the lives of those who end up behind bars as the nation has to the process of locking them up.

He'll likely get a good reception when he meets the chiefs in his home town of Chicago, but how far will they really go to support his ideas?

The city's Police Commissioner, Garry McCarthy, will enthusiastically back Obama. McCarthy is co-chair of the new Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration. "Good crime control policy does not involve arresting and imprisoning masses of people," McCarthy said this week.

On Wednesday, he declared that the new movement among law enforcers doesn't spell the end of "broken windows" policing, which calls for officers to address many minor offenses, but rather to concentrate on "locking up the right people for the right reasons."

Yet the IACP, although it sent a representative to take part in the new organization's initial meetings, has yet to endorse its principles, a spokesperson told The Crime Report.

Prosecutors, many of them elected on get-tough-on-crime platforms, have been blamed for many of the policies that have led to mass incarceration. Their main organization, the National District Attorneys Association, also took part in Law Enforcement Leaders' meetings this week but has not formally backed the new organization either.

Many district attorneys apparently aren't comfortable calling for the end of mandatory minimum sentences, believing they are appropriate for many "career criminals."

One of the new organization's main principles is that police and prosecutors "should divert people with mental health and drug addiction issues away from arrest, prosecution and imprisonment and instead into proper treatment."

It sounds good but how should the principle be applied in specific cases?

New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton was supposed to be a headliner at this week's criminal justice events in Washington, D.C., surrounding the new organization.

He couldn't make it because one of his officers was killed this week, allegedly by a man with a long rap sheet. Bratton and his boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, denounced a judge for having released the suspect to one of the diversion programs that the new Law Enforcement Leaders group favors.

That is one of the big challenges that faces criminal justice reformers now. Violent crime totals in many big cities are rising, not to the levels that faced Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but enough to give some pause about how far current proposals to change the system should go.

This week, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the federal sentencing bill, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute in New York City said that, "With pedestrian stops, criminal summons, and arrests falling precipitously in urban areas, criminals are becoming emboldened.  While I do not think that the current crime increase is a result of previous changes in federal sentencing policy, it behooves the government to tread cautiously in making further changes."

Her views may have more resonance in the more conservative House of Representatives. There, departing speaker John Boehner favored some kind of justice reform, but it's not clear in the current turmoil over his successor where the crime issue will end up.

Advocates contend that just the fact that issues like "overcriminalization" and long prison sentences are being talked about seriously at high levels of government is promising.

And it's indisputable that many states have adjusted their punishment systems and improved their prisons, whether motivated by economic issues, lawsuits, or research showing what works in preventing crime.

How legislative bodies nationwide, as well as police chiefs, prosecutors and other key actors in the justice system, act in the coming election year may tell the story of whether the U.S. will make significant changes in criminal justice or will suffice with a few token "reforms."

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes your comments.

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Crime Wave? What Crime Wave?

By Richard Rosenfeld

Recent press accounts have the nation’s big cities in the throes of a “new crime wave.”

Police chiefs and mayors have lobbied the federal government for assistance in combatting violent crime. In response, Attorney General Loretta Lynch held a “Summit on Violent Crime” in Washington on October 7th that brought together chiefs, mayors and federal officials to address the crime increase and discuss policy options.

I attended that meeting and had the chance to ask FBI Director James Comey a question that has concerned me throughout the news coverage of the crime increase: Why are we relying on press accounts instead of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) for crime statistics?

The UCR, after all, is the nation’s official source of crime data from the police. If we were facing an influenza outbreak, we would be getting weekly case counts from the Centers for Disease Control. If the unemployment rate had jumped, we would turn to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for last month’s job figures. So, why doesn’t the FBI release timely statistics to track monthly crime rates so that policymakers and the public can determine whether the country is, in fact, in the midst of a significant crime increase?

In answer to my question, Director Comey said that, as far as he knew, the FBI could not release up-to-date crime figures because it doesn’t have them. He also said he would check with the UCR program to see what might be possible in the future. 

The Uniform Crime Reports

It is useful to recount how the UCR program compiles crime data from the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. In most instances, the program no longer receives the data directly from local law enforcement agencies. Instead, as the Data Quality Guidelines for the FBI’s reports make clear, most agencies report monthly crime and related UCR data to their state-level UCR program or comparable Statistical Analysis Center (SAC).

The UCR’s state partners check the data for completeness and accuracy and then send it on to the FBI, where final checks are done and the data are readied for release in the annual report Crime in the United States.

At any given time, therefore, the FBI has on hand monthly crime information that has gone through an initial data quality evaluation by its state partners. State UCR programs and SACs vary in how rapidly they submit their data to the national UCR. Some do so monthly, others wait until after the collection year.

If many state programs do not currently submit timely crime data to the national UCR, nothing prevents the FBI from requesting more rapid reporting. Even if the national UCR program received timely crime data covering just five percent of the nation’s law enforcement jurisdictions, we would have a picture of emerging crime problems in 900 areas across the country, rather than the few dozen cities that the most diligent news reporters have managed to survey—which has led to what one writer has characterized as “scare headlines.”

 Editors Note: The following two sections are drawn in part from “The Big Picture: 2010 Presidential Address to the American Society of Criminology,” by Richard Rosenfeld, published in Criminology (v. 49, pp. 1-26).

 Back to the Future

Crime in the United States is released annually about nine-to-ten months after the end of the collection year. The FBI published yearend data for 2014, for example, in late September of this year.

It has not always been this way. The FBI has actually taken several steps backward over time in promulgating the UCR data in the slender time increments needed for rapid policy evaluation and response.

When the UCR program began in 1930, the data were released on a monthly basis. A quarterly release schedule was adopted in 1932. True, there were fewer law enforcement agencies back then, but the data were entered in pen and ink, or on typewriters, and sent by the post office to the FBI.

As a cost-saving measure during World War II, the FBI switched to semi-annual reports, which lasted until 1958 with the publication of the first annual volume of Crime in the United States. So, here we are, well into the twenty-first century when most law enforcement agencies compile crime data in electronic form, looking back in envy to the good old days of 1932—when the nation’s crime statistics were released on a schedule that made them useful for tracking crime problems as they arose.

It is difficult to believe that the FBI is incapable of reviving this 80-year-old best practice in an age of electronic data entry and instantaneous submission.

The Need for Comparative Crime Data

We also know that it is possible to disseminate the UCR data more rapidly than 21 months after the beginning of the collection year, because a large and growing number of local police departments already post monthly and, in some cases weekly, crime counts on their public websites. And, as noted, many state UCR programs obtain and in some cases publish crime statistics well before they are made available by the FBI.

But the move to real-time data availability at the local and state level prompts a question: If the more rapid release of UCR crime data is tenable, why is it necessary? After all, local police departments, especially the larger ones, are now capable of producing real-time data that can be used to address emerging crime problems.

Rapid data collection and retrieval are the digital foundation for the hot-spots and problem-oriented policing strategies now so much in vogue. If the St. Louis or San Francisco police department has adequate data for monitoring and responding to local crime problems, what use would they have for comparable data from Cleveland or Chicago?

The same question might be asked about the policy relevance of public-health or economic data. If we already know the local heart-disease or unemployment rate, for example, why do we care about the prevalence of heart disease or unemployment elsewhere? The answer of course is that the origins of heart disease and unemployment transcend local boundaries. The local conditions are manifestations of broader patterns and trends. The same is true of crime, a point made repeatedly by the local representatives at the Attorney General’s crime summit.

If local crime rates represent variations on a common theme, then the first task of the policy maker is to place the local changes in the context of general trends. Knowing whether local crime rates correspond with or diverge from broader patterns is essential for developing effective local responses. If local conditions are part of a general pattern, then interventions proven effective elsewhere should be high on the list of candidates for local adoption.

If the local rates are diverging from common trends, it is a good bet they are being driven by idiosyncratic local conditions (e.g., a flare up in gang conflicts), which would call for interventions specifically tailored to the local scene. Either way, comparative crime data are needed to determine the nature of local crime problems and to respond appropriately.

What Should Be Done?

FBI staffers are currently working with the Bureau of Justice Statistics to upgrade national statistics on crime and police shootings. Director Comey urged the mayors and police chiefs at the October 7th crime summit to adopt the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in their jurisdictions, which has been in the works since the 1980s but still covers only about a third of the US population. These are welcome steps, but they will not help national and local policymakers address current crime increases. We cannot respond knowledgably to this year’s crime problems, determine their size and scope, or figure out what may be causing them with last year’s crime statistics.

Reporters have done due diligence in informing us that crime rates are up in some cities. They have filled an information void that is almost unimaginable in any other policy arena well into the 21st century.

The FBI should close the crime information gap now, or hand off this urgent policy priority to another federal agency that will.

Richard Rosenfeld is the Founders Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. He welcomes your comments.

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The Struggle Continues: Security at The Cost of Freedom

By C. Jama Adams


The March on Washington in 1963 was a highpoint in the never ending quest for justice and  dignity. It represented centuries of struggle and continues to this day as countless groups  continue to have the republic live up to its ideals. The attainment of substantive equality of  opportunity and respect for ethically informed differences are still very much works in progress in twenty-first century America.

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Do We Really Need More Criminal Code Offenses?

By Julie Stewart

A new bipartisan task force comprising members of the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing this month  to examine the growing problem known as overcriminalization.

I was cautiously optimistic when I first learned of the task force’s creation, because I believe that the explosion of federal criminal laws—many of which are vague and carry lengthy mandatory minimum sentences – has done more harm than people realize.

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From ‘Boom’ to Bust: 10 Years of Criminal Justice Change

By Ted Gest

Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report, looks back on a decade of providing the Internet's only daily digest of important developments in criminal justice. It continues to reflect not only the economic challenges facing the nation’s criminal justice system, but the similar challenges to journalism itself.

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Enterprise Crime Reporting—A Vanishing Practice?

By Ted Gest

We’re only two months into 2011, and there’s no shortage of crime news ----from the shooting of a congresswoman in Tucson that shocked the nation to a supposedly “polite” armed robber in Seattle who also got wide notice. Yet few stories on individual crimes, large and small, enlighten Americans much on how to reduce crime generally or to protect themselves specifically.

One of the only measures of the volume of coverage, a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, found that crime remains one of the top eight coverage issues,  but its share of the total was down slightly last year. That makes sense, because crime rates continued to stabilize and there was no single dramatic crime event. (This year may prove to be statistically different to the extent that the Tucson shootings and the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks are defined as crime.)

What these numbers don’t measure is the quality of coverage. In my view,  there is somewhat less “enterprise” reporting by journalists on crime and justice issues than there used to be.

My conclusion is backed by the results of the latest in the series of annual surveys of crime coverage conducted by Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ). 

Our survey, presented at the 6th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College this month, shows that there still is terrific coverage.

One example is the Philadelphia Inquirer series on major problems in local courts that won this year’s John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Award for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting,  one of the journalism awards given at the Guggenheim conference. After two years of painstaking work, the Inquirer’s five-person investigative team found that Philadelphia had the highest violent crime rate among America's 10 largest cities and among the lowest conviction rates for big cities. Full disclosure: I was one of the jurors for this year’s prize. 

For a more detailed account of the series, please see the case study prepared by CJJ Board Member Deb Wenger.

Overall, however, if you check the pages of your local newspaper—the kind of outlet most likely to be doing reporting that takes a critical look at how police, courts, and correctional agencies are operating—and you will see less of it.

I believe there are two major reasons for this.

One is that crime is somewhat less of a public issue than it was in the early 1990s, when the reported rates of crime were at their highest in modern U.S. history.  Another is that there simply are fewer journalists to do it. Many daily newspapers around the nation have been hit by budget cutbacks and resulting staff layoffs and attrition.

As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism points out in the conference call we conducted to discuss the survey, investigative reporting remains alive and well in many places.

Only some fraction of those efforts deal with crime and justice, however. The Washington Post and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel , for example, have provided major, ongoing coverage of gun violence and government failures to regulate illegal gun transactions, but most media haven’t dealt with the subject extensively.

There’s also the issue of media literacy on crime issues. One speaker at the H.F. Guggenheim symposium, researcher David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, often is interviewed on gun issues. He complained that many journalists take a “simplistic view of the world,” seemingly assuming that anyone they interview on the subject must be either pro-gun or anti-gun, and not realizing that the United States is an “outlier” among civilized nations in its high volume of firearms crime.  

Will things change in 2011? It depends. The Arizona case has prompted more coverage of gun issues than had been the case recently, and there’s a chance at at least some media outlets will take a close look at a key issue arising from Tucson: is it possible to keep guns from more people who have shown signs of serious mental illness but have not been hospitalized?

On the homeland security front, the months leading up to the 9/11 anniversary will be the occasion for some detailed media examinations of what is being done to prevent new terrorist attacks. The issue has a clear connection to the amount of public resources devoted to law enforcement because many of the same agencies handle key functions of both, and tax-dollar support for policing is eroding in many places.

A trickier issue is public fear of crime, which may or may not be related to actual crime rates. In a particular community, it may depend on the extent of “stranger” crimes—those seemingly random events that don’t involve criminals’ offenses against each other, which are typical in the drug trade. The media can be key to public perceptions, because broadcast outlets and newspapers  often report violent “stranger” crimes more prominently than other offenses, and rarely put them into perspective.

The annual Gallup Survey shows that as of last fall, a fairly high percentage of the nation—37 percent of those surveyed—are afraid to walk within a mile of their residences. (This figure has been stable for years, although it was somewhat higher in the high-crime era of the 1980s and early 1990s.)

Some media are doing better at gathering and displaying online data showing crime “hot spots.” A better effort at this might inform the public that at least some of the areas near their homes are safer than they think. The pressure on journalists to produce stories constantly both for the Web and for regularly published newspapers and radio or television newscasts suggests that the mainstream news media aren’t rushing to produce these analyses in the competition to report on the daily crime blotter.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and editor of TCR’s Crime and Justice News

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