“If you are not safe, nothing else matters”
I wrote this review of Thomas Abt's new book "Bleeding Out" for the New York Law Journal:
We are living in what might be called the golden age of criminal justice reform literature. In the wake of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s chart-topping, game-changing 2010 investigation of the intersection of race and criminal justice, have come an avalanche of related books. Ordinary Injustice by Amy Bach, Charged by Emily Bazelon, Punishment Without Crime by Alexandra Natapoff, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton…the list continues to grow.
These works have a couple of things in common. By and large, they are books that highlight the real and urgent problem of mass incarceration – the grim reality that more than 2.3 million Americans are currently locked up behind bars. Another thing they have in common is that they spend preciously little time talking about actually fighting crime.
Thomas Abt’s Bleeding Out (Basic Books) fills an important gap in the emerging criminal justice canon. Abt, a former Manhattan prosecutor who worked at the Justice Department during the Obama administration, writes about the seemingly intractable problem of urban violence, which he calls the “pinnacle of social injustice.”
While Alexander and those who have followed in her wake tend to focus on how the system mistreats the accused and the incarcerated, Abt takes as his subject the mistreatment of the people and places that are victimized by high rates of violent crime, and gun crime in particular. As Abt makes clear, even as we look to build a justice system that is truly fair and compassionate, we must not forget the devastating effects of violent behavior on our streets.
This is not just a conservative talking point. Indeed, for Abt, reducing the homicide rate is the first step toward achieving broader social change. According to Abt, “high rates of violent crime are the structural linchpin of urban poverty, trapping poor people in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.” Quoting the human rights lawyer Gary Haugen, Abt argues “If you are not safe, nothing else matters.”
In making the case for the importance of combating violence in places like Baltimore, St. Louis, and Chicago, Abt has not conducted new and original research. Nor does he advance a novel theory. Instead, his primary contribution is one of synthesis: he provides readers with a brisk summary of some of the greatest crime control thinkers of the past half century.
Drawing on the seminal work of Lawrence Sherman and David Weisburd, Abt makes the point that crime “clusters inside America’s distressed neighborhoods, but it does not do so uniformly. Instead it concentrates among small groups of people, places and things.”
Abt also quotes approvingly from the grandmother of urban theorists, the great Jane Jacobs: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace…of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”
Combining these two insights, Abt proposes an approach to urban violence that seeks to target the awful might of the modern criminal justice apparatus as surgically as possible , so that Jacobs’ informal mechanisms of social control can do their work in a peaceful fashion. Violence, he argues, is a big problem that actually demands small solutions: .
Urban violence imposes tremendous costs on poor communities and the public at large, but because it is highly concentrated among a few people, places, and behaviors, it is actually “small” in terms of policy…we can do a lot with a little.
Abt espouses an anti-violence agenda that balances help (investments in community non-profits, street outreach programs, and cognitive behavioral therapy) with the strategic use of punishment (incapacitating chronic offenders).
Here, Abt is particularly indebted to the work of David Kennedy, the architect of the “focused deterrence” model of crime prevention. Kennedy’s model attempts to focus the energies of both justice agencies and community groups on those individuals within a given community who are most at-risk of engaging in violent behavior, particularly those who are already on probation or parole for prior criminal activity. These individuals are offered a choice: they can take advantage of services and be reintegrated into the community or they can experience the full weight of local law enforcement agencies.
Kennedy’s focused deterrence model was first tested in Boston in the 1990s, to remarkable effect – researchers documented that it contributed to a significant reduction in youth homicide. Since then, the model has been adapted in dozens of other American cities. A recent review of the research on focused deterrence conducted by the Campbell Collaboration found that there is strong empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of the model.
In writing about focused deterrence and other anti-violence strategies, Abt is driven by a question that many of the current books about criminal justice do not even bother to ask: how can we change the behavior of those who are involved in the most damaging kinds of criminal conduct?
In attempting to answer this question, there are certain avenues that Abt does not explore fully. One is culture. Why is the rate of homicide five times higher in the US than in Canada or the United Kingdom? Is the easy availability of handguns the primary explanation? Or is there something in the American DNA (eg. the myth of the gunfighter) that encourages the idea that violence is an appropriate way to resolve disputes? Do our violent delights (first-person shooter games, gangster movies, etc.) necessarily entail violent ends?
Like many commentators, Abt spends a good chunk of his book looking at the persistence of racial disparities in the justice system. Another, arguably more pronounced, disparity is mentioned only in passing: gender. Roughly 9 out of 10 homicides in the US are committed by men. Why is this? Does biology explain the gender gap? Is there something amiss in the way we think about and perform masculinity? Are there other possible explanations?
While Abt leaves these questions unanswered, he has, in the end, made a valuable contribution to our current conversation about crime and justice. In particular, Bleeding Out makes a strong case that “sustainable crime control does not happen without social justice, and vice versa.” These goals are often viewed in conflict with each other, but Abt argues that they are inextricably bound together.
Combating persistent violence in urban communities should be a national priority. But politics often gets in the way of clear thinking about how to move forward. Abt has a clear message for demagogues on both sides of the aisle. He argues that conservatives should abandon rhetoric (eg “black-on-black crime”) that implicitly advances ideas of racial inferiority. In a similar vein, he tells progressive activists that “characterizing all of criminal justice as irredeemably racist or illegitimate does not actually advance a broader social justice agenda.”
Here’s hoping that all of our presidential candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, heed Abt’s compelling call for change.