Imagine that one day a group of young men start selling drugs at the corner of your block. They operate in shifts, dealing feet from your front door all day every day. At night from inside your six-year-old daughter’s bedroom you can hear them carrying on their business, using profanity and smashing empty 40-ounce bottles of beer on the curb side. You and your daughter walk past them and their customers each morning on the way to her school.
One morning you have to shield your first grader’s eyes, so she doesn’t see one of the dealers trading drugs for sex in the side yard of your neighbor’s house. Gunfire becomes your nightly background noise. In the beginning, you call the police who come and go but you keep waiting for someone to do something permanent to restore your block to the way it was before the dealers showed up. You tell yourself, “Surely this situation cannot continue, someone in authority will intervene. Someone will stop this from happening.” But it continues.
One night you see one of the young men on the corner brandishing a gun during a dispute with an unhappy customer. You call 911 and give a detailed description of the young man and the gun. You recognize him because he is out there every day and most nights. You were a few feet away when he menaced his addicted patron and you could see the details of the semi-automatic handgun he took from his waistband. You have seen this young man giving direction to the other dealers on your block.
Within minutes of your call the police arrive. They search the young man based on your tip and they find the gun. You watch from your daughter’s bedroom window as the offender is handcuffed and placed in a police car. You feel a small sense of triumph. You took action and stood up for your community and lawful authority has prevailed. That night and the next morning the corner is quiet.
The next afternoon you go to the corner to meet your six-year-old on her way home from school and when you get there you suddenly can’t breathe: there on the corner is the same young man, the one with the gun. The one you saw cuffed and placed in the police car the night before. The one you reported. As you take your daughter’s hand and walk past him and the other dealers he says loudly to his friends “bitches be snitching around here. Someone is gonna get hurt.”
Now imagine you are too poor to get out of this neighborhood and then multiply this experience over a period of years instead of days or weeks. Over and over again, you suffer the same assault against your dignity and security. Add in bloodshed, crime scenes and dead bodies and you have the reality of many African-American Philadelphians in the city’s poorest, most crime-plagued neighborhoods. What is unimaginable for most people in America is reality in these communities. The residents live as second-class citizens and prisoners in their own homes.
When I was the district attorney in Philadelphia these lawless corners were the places where I worked hard to bring some level of justice. I implemented geographic, community-based prosecution for the first time in our city, primarily so that the prosecutors in my office knew about the communities like the one described here. I made sure that the prosecutors in my office knew the people in those communities and prioritized the prosecution of the young men brandishing guns and terrorizing their neighbors. I knew from my own favorite Aunt Shirley, who used to walk around Cobbs Creek Parkway with my mother, carrying a big stick to scare off any would-be assailants, that to enforce the law effectively you need to know the players in the neighborhood, whether you are beat cop, a prosecutor, or middle-aged woman trying to exercise.
The geographic approach to prosecution did not promote mass incarceration. Instead by breaking the city down into its individual neighborhoods we were able to reduce incarceration because we worked with police to bring precision to a historically imprecise criminal justice system. When you assign prosecutors to specific communities they can focus on the most active and most violent offenders and effectively remove them from the community.
And yes by “remove,” I mean put them in jail.
We know from decades of criminal justice data that less than one half of one percent of the criminal population is responsible for 60 percent or more of the violent crime. The key to effective law enforcement is knowing through collaboration and geographic organization who the one half of one percent is and then focusing your resources on stopping them.
You can actually send fewer people to jail if the people you are sending are the right people.
Larry Krasner ended geographic prosecution and instituted a policy of mass de-carceration. Mass de-carceration suffers from the same defect as mass incarceration. It lacks precision. Under mass incarceration, the minor non-violent offender ends up in jail along with the major violent and repeat offender. Under mass de-carceration, neither offender goes to jail. For Krasner, the decision to let everyone out applies very deliberately to offenders charged with carrying illegal guns on our streets.
Krasner’s office data dashboard claims that since 2018 his office has imposed 28,100 fewer years of incarceration. This fanciful statistic has no meaning to the folks in crime-ridden communities in our city. They know without checking Krasner’s website that no one is going to jail because the criminals are running wild on their block.
Krasner’s decision to forgo consequences for gun offenders, repeat drug offenders, and others may be interesting to the folks running his data “laboratory”, or out-of-town fundraisers, but in those communities already besieged by crime it is more than academic. In communities where there is a daily battle between law and chaos and good and evil, the message that there are no consequences for most illegal behavior spreads quickly.
I always say: “It is not the severity of punishment, but the certainty that changes behavior.” The streets talk. So, the message that “Uncle Larry is giving out free passes,” acts as an accelerant and crime explodes everywhere but increases the most in the areas already on the edge of mayhem. Drug dealing becomes more open and more flagrant. Drug corners turn into drug blocks and blocks turn into multi-block open air drug bazaars. Shootings happen in the middle of the day with police a block away. Drug use and prostitution become open and ubiquitous. Evil and chaos triumph.
When the Inquirer claims that Krasner “won” these same poor communities and suggests that his re-election is an affirmation of his policies they perpetrate a cruel hoax. Almost 80 percent of the citizens of Philadelphia do not vote for District Attorney. In the poorest communities the percentage of non-voters is even higher. The citizens of these neighborhoods are not apathetic. They care deeply about their families and community. They do not vote in huge numbers but they do call 911 more than their better off neighbors.
They are not calling 911 to provide input for Krasner’s data laboratory. They are calling to beg for order in their community. When those calls result in the same criminals back on the same corners causing the same terror, they give up on government. They do not stop caring about their community. Instead, they resign themselves to the fact that their elected leaders stopped caring a long time ago!
The failure to enforce the laws in poor African American communities is not new. Part of the history of the black relationship to the criminal justice system is the uneven application of the law to both black defendants and black victims.
The United States Justice Department was created 152 years ago by President Ulysses S. Grant in part to enforce the law on behalf of black citizens in the South during Reconstruction. Local southern prosecutors back then refused to pursue cases against their like-minded brethren in the Ku Klux Klan so federal prosecutors had to intervene. When Reconstruction ended and the remnants of the Confederacy re-asserted white supremacist control in the South, the Jim Crow justice system took over and systematically denied justice to black defendants and black victims of crime. The decimation of black victim rights was characterized most notably by the refusal to prosecute whites who openly and notoriously murdered innocent blacks. But this betrayal of justice also included a deliberate refusal to prosecute black on black crimes in segregated black communities.
A vacuum created by the absence of legitimate authority is always filled by illegitimate authority. The Jim Crow system denied black victims equal protection of the law because of a racist ideology designed to destroy black communities. It made blacks second class citizens. The effect on black Americans was described powerfully by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Segregation,” he said…”not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually…it scars the soul…. it is a system which forever stares the segregated in the face saying ‘You are less than…You are not equal to..’”
Larry Krasner is not a racist but his refusal to enforce the law in African American black communities has an equally destructive impact on the soul and spirit of the residents.
Krasner replaces Jim Crow’s aggressive racism with white, liberal, academic indifference. He and the folks in his laboratory know what is best for poor black people and what he thinks is best is to not enforce the law and not put anyone in jail. When he is challenged on the practical impact of these irrational policies, he claims he is following “science”.
People who voted for Krasner because he promised to end mass incarceration and correct other injustices did not want science, they wanted precision. They did not volunteer to be rats in Krasner’s lab experiment. They wanted someone who could know what they know; that there are some guys in the neighborhood that need to be locked up. There are others that need to be helped up. Krasner does not know the difference. Until elected African-American leaders and the community speak up and insist that Krasner gets out of the lab and into the courtroom to do his job then chaos will reign, killing will increase and poor blacks in our city will remain second class citizens.