Last year, more Philadelphians were murdered than at any point in the city’s history. The perpetrators and the victims in many of these cases were not “whole” as human beings and suffered from profound spiritual sickness. These mostly young, black men come from poor neighborhoods populated by the unskilled and uneducated, where status is defined by false bravado and a willingness to be ruthless and violent.
Philadelphia has the highest concentration of poverty among the ten largest American cities. Somewhere around 400,000 Philadelphians live in poverty. Almost 60 percent of the residents of these poor neighborhoods have some kind of criminal record, but according to decades of academic studies of violent crime only a small part of that population drives the majority of the violent crime. These studies all confirm what the people living there already know : a tiny percentage, somewhere between one-half and one percent, of a city’s population, is responsible for most of the violence.
How and why should society offer anything to this sick and depraved fraction of the population who turn our neighborhoods into cauldrons of violence?
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In Philadelphia, with a population of 1.6 million residents, the violent crime population is the equivalent of between 8,000 and 16,000 individuals. Anyone involved in law enforcement knows that this is a misleading calculation. While it may be true that the country’s sixth-largest city has a large contingent of violent criminals, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that thousands of criminals are consistently involved in violent criminality on an ongoing basis.
In reality, gun violence in Philadelphia is fantastically concentrated. On an ongoing basis hundreds of shooting incidents (where shots are fired whether or not anyone is hit) can be connected to a small handful of feuding groups made up of a several dozen participants with fantastically similar resumes.
In their seminal study on murder in the city of Philadelphia, aptly titled “Murder is No Mystery,” researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reviewed data related to 1,460 murders committed in Philadelphia between 1996 and 1999. Among their findings were these agonizing demographic data points:
- Murder is intensely concentrated in poor neighborhoods where joblessness is endemic and generational.
- More than 90 percent of all accused murderers are men.
- A high percentage of murderers are either on probation or parole or awaiting sentencing for another crime when they commit murder.
- Murderers and victims share these same characteristics
- More then 70 percent of the murder victims are black.
- More then 70 percent of these murders are committed with a gun.
These statistics have remained consistent in the decades since the report was published. There are now more female victims and the percentage of murders committed with guns has increased, but the basics remain the same: young black men are killing other young black men. My father would say: “We have put the KKK out of business.”
The Penn study provided a road map that has been adopted but never sustained in Philadelphia, effective enforcement combined with effective prevention.
Effective enforcement is always characterized by precision in arrests and prosecution and predictable consequences. Poverty is a characteristic of many perpetrators and victims of gun violence, but it is not an excuse to abandon poor neighborhoods to chaos and disorder. Philadelphians who live in the densely populated rowhouse neighborhoods know their neighborhood and they know who the good and the tiny percentage of bad folks are in their community.
Perpetrators and victims
I grew up in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philly and when your car was stolen, everyone knew exactly who stole it. It was a family of brothers that lived only a block away from my home. When we were very young and playing Nerf football in the street, those same brothers would steal the ball. Later they stole bicycles, then they graduated to stealing cars and running a chop shop. The same dynamic is true for those responsible for the violence in our communities; they are a small group who are known in the community.
I was a young Assistant District Attorney with a full head of hair, when I first read the “Murder is No Mystery” study. It was part of the reason I ran for District Attorney. When I was elected, I implemented Community Based Prosecution and I partnered with Commissioner Charles Ramsey to carry out strategies like GunStat and Focused Deterrence in order to provide effective enforcement based on the principles described in that study.
The study, like countless others since then, demonstrated the Venn diagram of violent crime. You remember the Venn diagram from 8th grade science class, right? If we draw one circle including all the folks in Philly most likely to be shot and then superimpose over it another circle of those most likely to do the shooting, the overlap would be about 75 percent. The effective response must be to organize our law enforcement efforts AND our prevention efforts around that overlap. If we can identify those most likely to shoot and those most likely to be shot then we should be able to prioritize our resources to focus on those individuals with precision law enforcement and prevention. One does not work without the other.
Our current District Attorney, Larry Krasner, gets a lot of press for his failures to effectively enforce the law. The city has descended into a historic cataclysm during Krasner’s tenure as a direct result of his ideology and incompetence as a prosecutor. Less attention is given to Krasner’s other total failure in prevention.
Krasner and his progressive allies on city council talk a lot about prevention, but they do little to effectively support it for the tiny percentage of individuals caught up in the cycle of violence. Krasner has essentially decriminalized everything short of murder for juveniles in a naïve effort to steer them away from life in the justice system. In the process, he teaches them that there are no consequences for crime.
He holds press conferences to give away blow up checks to a variety of favored community groups. He and his allies also talk frequently about the big societal problems; schools that produce uneducated graduates, racism, poverty, and an economy that doesn’t reach the residents of poor neighborhoods. These are real problems that we all should work to fix. But it is not clear to me how Krasner refusing to do his job as District Attorney helps to solve these chronic challenges.
Krasner has essentially decriminalized everything short of murder for juveniles in a naïve effort to steer them away from life in the justice system. In the process, he teaches them that there are no consequences for crime.
Nor is it clear how city council adopting policies that handicap police and drive business from the city does anything to reduce poverty. If anything, their refusal to adopt effective economic and law enforcement and prevention strategies has ensured that the city will sink further into economic disarray and dysfunction as it loses businesses and residents due to its image as one of the least safe places in the state and country to live. One thing Krasner and his council allies are not doing is protecting our citizens or reaching down and pulling up the young black men who are trapped in the cauldron of violence.
The skills to survive
One of the most profound ways we as a city can save young men caught up in violence is by giving them a skill that can provide them with a purpose in life. The tiny population that drives violence is hard for us to pity. Their petty grievances, and lack of reasonable conflict resolution are the source of gun battles that take innocent life and render our city a war zone. Watching videos of shootings where dozens and dozens of bullets are fired on neighborhood streets with callous disregard for human life does not inspire charity toward the perpetrators.
It is easy to persuade people to make these young men the focus of arrest and prosecution. It is harder to persuade people to prioritize them for generosity and opportunity.
But as the Bible suggests; medicine is for the sick. We know that despite their sociopathic behavior, most of the young men involved in violence are not sociopaths. They are in that sense redeemable. It is not liberal psychobabble to say that individuals who pick up guns and shoot them at other humans do not care about their targets and care even less about themselves. They must be empty and without any sense of positive purpose or self-worth. Otherwise, they would not throw their life away.
Too many cannot imagine living beyond 25. These individuals cannot be limited to finding redemption as juveniles because they get a free pass on crime or as adults because they go to prison and age out of criminality. True redemption only comes from finding a purpose that gives you a sense of self-worth and a reason for joining society. For many people, redemption comes from religious faith or from the grinding effect of years in prison. But for those young men who are no longer juveniles and who are not yet in prison, the ones who are currently in the cauldron, redemption can only come by finding a path out of their current circumstance. A path that doesn’t involve dying or going to jail.
Learning a skill is one of the most effective ways to transform someone in this circumstance and remove them from the generational cycle of violence that has claimed so many of their ancestors and peers.
Learning a skill for this at-risk population is not the same as it is for the stable, self-motivated individuals who through family support or self-discipline pursues that path on their own. Most of the individuals we are talking about did not finish high school, have suffered from mental or physical abuse, come from broken homes, or have been shot or suffered other forms of trauma. They can’t simply enroll in a vocational course and trust they will succeed. They need an entire ecosystem of support.
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I served three years in federal prison and saw first-hand the challenges for prisoners without the basic skills necessary to function in the workforce. While in prison I taught other prisoners a variety of skills from writing to music and poetry. I taught the GED course every day. I saw the light of God in my students.
They were in many cases above-average and remarkable human beings. I also saw that despite their natural qualities many prisoners had aspirations that still exceeded their abilities. Most of these men were very intelligent, had exceptional non-traditional mathematical skills and were hungry to recreate themselves to become better not only for themselves but their loved ones. You would be amazed by the original poems and artwork they created. They told me almost daily that their boys on the streets would respect them if they learned a skill or a trade that would allow them to one day have their own business.
The solution for these individuals is not a minimalist approach where we teach them how to show up, stay the full day and not be disruptive. We must help them to become carpenters, auto mechanics, plumbers, truck drivers, welders, chefs, and other skilled workers. We must provide them with a positive social equivalent to the status they have earned on the street by being anti-social. For that tiny percentage of the tiny percentage of our citizens who are prepared to take steps to obtain those skills to transform their lives, Philadelphia needs a Cadillac strategy.
More than one program
Every major corporation, every law firm and every philanthropist that has an interest in a thriving city must make a commitment to be a part of this ecosystem. Intervention programs throughout the city that identify the diamonds in the rough; young people who demonstrate the inclination to change course, those intervention programs must have access to skills training, and workforce readiness.
These organizations get the individual to take those first steps toward redemption, but they need the ecosystem for transformation. This ecosystem must include scholarships to trade school, a salary while attending trade school, tutoring, housing, counseling, financial literacy , parenting skills, addiction recovery counseling, a mentor and a therapist and finally a job waiting at the end of training. This is the kind of effort our elected leaders, including Krasner, should be organizing in the city’s private sector.
Then we can say to any young person caught up in criminality and violence; “If you ask for help, we will provide it in whatever form you need. If you want to transform your life, we will pay for you to do so. We will take you from the beginning across the finish line. All we ask in return is for you to live your life and share your example with the next generation.”
For my conservative friends that will balk at this: diversionary programs like The Choice is Yours that I created not only save lives, they cost a fraction of what we pay for incarceration and they are the first step towards transformational change. Productive, skilled taxpayers are better than prisoners.
Every young person we pull out of a neighborhood to go to trade school instead of prison will begin a cultural change in their community. No longer will returning prisoners be the only example for the young men on the corner. There will be tradesmen who will show by their example and status that there is hope for the poor and peace and righteousness in our city.
R. Seth Williams is the former district attorney for Philadelphia, and was the first African American elected as a district attorney anywhere in the commonwealth. Follow him on Twitter at @newsethwilliams.