June 18, 2012 1t 11:33 p.m.
DAVID SIMON says:
Of what, exactly, are you skeptical?
That the deterrent against repeat violent offenders has been found to have one of the most direct correlations to a city’s crime rate? Sorry, but that’s been established firmly for nearly two decades. As far back as the early 1990s, police targeting of the most serious repeat offenders for violent crimes in cities such as Boston and New York has been proven to dramatically reduce the murder rate. Conversely, take a look at post-Katrina New Orleans where the overall collapse of the District Attorney’s office under Eddie Jordan — and the prolonged lack of successful prosecutions of homicides — led in the ensuing years to the highest murder rates ever seen in modern America. On New Orleans drug corners, taking a murder charge was soon known as “doing your sixty,” given that defendants were routinely released at preliminary hearings at the sixty-day mark.
Given that the 50-percent decline in Baltimore’s prosecution of murder isn’t yet a year old, the full effect of such continued ineffectiveness is still likely to play out. Unless the criminal justice system rights itself, repeat offenders are going to become even more of a commonality for Baltimore homicide detectives. Given that perhaps as much as 60 percent of Baltimore’s violence is drug-related, and repetitive violence is endemic to the illegal drug trade, this has always been so. Any veteran detective can tell you of dozens of occasions in which a suspect was identified in a drug murder and then found to have been a suspect in prior killings. Do you seriously think a 50-percent decline in murder prosecutions is going to make that phenomenon less common? Or more?
June 19, 2012 at 11:02 a.m.
The fact is, as you state, the murder rate in Baltimore is up 9%: It has in fact not skyrocketed. So the deterrent effect of murder charges is not proven; to the contrary, the 50% reduction in charges appears to be having a moderating effect on murder statistics and overall crime statistics. Zero tolerance, by the way, doesn’t mean “arrest everybody and sort them out later.” The theory (that has worked famously in New York City) holds that if you give enough of the serious offenders a taste of a robust, strict, timely criminal justice system, they do not become repeat offenders. Crime rates drop. Having professionally trained, well-paid journalists covering this and other cultural phenomena does not somehow legitimize the issue. Crime reporting does not deter crime, not now, not 20 years ago, not ever. Enlightened public policy can.
June 19, 2012 at 12:52 p.m.
You’re just not correct. Sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.
Numerous studies have for two decades shown that repeat violent offenders and the effective targeting of such are the key to controlling the rates of violence in urban areas. In fact, as a law enforcement strategy it might be the only thing that actually works. Community policing? Nope. Zero tolerance? Nada. Those slogans were effective selling platforms. Community policing made everyone feel better without achieving much at all. Zero tolerance approximates the credit that a politician took for the rehabilitation of New York. In fact, it wasn’t filling the Tombs and Rikers that saved that city. It was a two-decades rush of Wall Street profits into the NY real estate market that effectively rebuilt Manhattan and a good chunk of the outer boroughs so that the only thing that could mug you in places like Alphabet City or Morningside Heights was a two-star restaurant. Absent that kind of cash influx, zero tolerance succeeds only in filling jail cells, destroying more families and bankrupting states under ridiculous rates of prison construction. Witness Baltimore. Or California.
No, solving violent crimes and locking people up who do those crimes at the best possible rate actually works. Why? Because with the advent and growth of the urban drug trade, homicide has become the work of repeat violent offenders. The bar arguments and domestics that once constituted a greater share of a city’s murder rate are now less of a percentage of overall violence. Instead, in cities such as Baltimore, police have acknowledged that between 60 to 70 percent of the homicides are related to drug activity. And if you leave violent offenders on the corners, they continue to kill.
You can believe otherwise, but from Nathan Barksdale to Roddy Milligan to Vernon Collins to Marlo Bates and ad nauseum, I can not only attest to this phenomenon over the last twenty years, I can use the names of two dozen suspects who went long and hard making bodies until finally someone made an effective case. Dennis Wise alone probably managed to drop twenty bodies before the legendary Rod Brandner finally built a case that got him a life sentence.
You seem to cling to the notion that merely because there is only (!) a nine-percent bump in the current homicide rate, six months after the state’s attorney elected to charge half as many murders that you have proven something. I’m really unsure what exactly. As I pointed out, the actual deterrent for homicide in Baltimore was already at about a 40-percent rate for arrest and conviction combined. If the State’s Attorney’s machinations reduced that by half, leaving only a 20-percent or 25-percent conviction rate, how many cases were dumped that would otherwise have been viable in 2011? Twenty, thirty? Are you really attempting to suggest that twenty, thirty defendants returning to the corners to do more violence are sufficient, over a six month period, to bump the murder rate more than 10 or 15 percent over the course of a single year? Isn’t a 9-percent bump halfway through 2012 plausible as exactly what I said it was: A harbinger. If the deterrent against murder continues to be halved for another year, and another year after that, and if the street sense on the corners becomes what it became in New Orleans — that to take a murder charge is to do sixty days only until a preliminary hearing dismisses all charges — then check back on your presumptions a couple years from now. At that point, the effect of the systemic failure will be pronounced and geometric.
Moreover, what are you actually arguing for? Less success in arresting and convicting killers? Are you really suggesting that it doesn’t matter to a city if we take people who kill off the street? That the deterrent to murder is irrelevant? Really? Tell that to the New Orleanians suffering through the worst crime — and some of the worst prosecutorial stats — an American city has ever seen. Or tell it to the people of Boston, who saw their police department, city prosecutors and U.S. Attorney’s office carefully target the 100 most violent offenders aggressively, taking almost all of them off the street in a 12-month period in the early 1990s. The murder rate in Boston fell within two years to the lowest rate in the modern era. That study of how to use retroactive investigation to incarcerate repeat violent offenders and dramatically alter a city’s crime culture is seminal to understanding modern urban enforcement. You seem either indifferent to or ignorant of actual facts and strategies known to law enforcement professionals for decades now.
As to your attempt to portray the State’s Attorney’s stance as thoughtful and judicious, rather than timid and political — this has led you to some confused misapplications. Witness your strange invocation of zero tolerance and an attempt to somehow redefine that policing philosophy to incorporate the State’s Attorney’s retreat. That makes no sense whatsoever. Zero tolerance, which deals with how departments treat minor felonies and misdemeanors has, um, zero to do with what we are discussing. These are murders. No policing philosophy or strategy ever contemplated argues for anything other than rigor in pursuing those who kill. And murders require the most fulsome and fundamental sanctions that society can muster against the offenders. If you can achieve enough evidence to indict and prosecute, you do so. If you cannot, then you cannot. But to charge only those cases that are surefire wins is self-defeating. A circumstantial case is often a strong case, but it requires hard work, prolonged follow-through and an attentive jury to bring home. And sometimes a verdict will, rightly or wrongly, go the other way. That is what the day in court is for, after all. But running away from the tough cases solves nothing. And the seeming diffidence of your comments with regard to what is at stake in this struggle, for society and the violence that threatens that society, strikes me as, well, remarkable.
I want to be careful not to use any ad hominem to prevent you from pursuing your chosen line of argument, but, from your handle of Clarence Darrow, I have to ask, are you an attorney? Do you practice criminal law in Baltimore? And if so, are you affiliated with the State’s Attorney’s Office? Because that could, perhaps, explain some of this. Or not. But I am now, I admit, curious.
June 20, 2012 at 11:27 p.m.
One sidereal year from today, on the summer solstice, assuming that this blog is still in existence , that the Baltimore City State Attorney’s policy has not changed, and that Baltimore’s clearance stats are the same, we will revisit Baltimore’s murder rate and the issue of the “stat.”. At that time, appropriate apologies and retractions can be extended. You are a gentleman;. I take it you will honor this appointment.
* * *
July 3, 2013 at 3:37 p.m:
DAVID SIMON says:
It is now a sidereal year later, with the solstice past us. As the gentleman known as Mr. Darrow, whoever he is, is a bit late to our engagement, let me summarize the situation as it presently exists: By the end of 2012, Baltimore saw a 10 percent bump in the homicide rate, giving up the previous year’s gains and returning the raw total from 197 to 217. Currently, after a spate of summer violence, the 2013 bump has the city averaging between 230 and 240 murders in a year. So, currently, eighteen months after joining the above argument, Baltimore is now nearing 40 incidents per 100,000, so that murder rate is up nearly 20 percent from where we last left it.
The response by Baltimore leaders has been exceptional in both its disconnection from the fundamental solutions and its callow predictability:
1) They reassigned the police spokesman for telling everyone that everything was fine, when in fact, that is what others in authority have been saying for quite a while.
2) The police department has rushed to show the flag, throwing hundreds of officers into visible street patrols to reassure the citizenry. This is S.O.P. for police commissioners everywhere, despite the fact that every law enforcement study for the past quarter century shows that heightened patrol, while reassuring, is virtually meaningless when it comes to reducing violent crime. The 911 dynamic is such that we long ago reached diminishing returns in our quest to bring officers to the scene in time to proacvtively prevent or interrupt crimes. It doesn’t work — not consistently enough to reduce crime.
3) The police commissioner says that they are doing all they can, that there is a plan and, oh yes, that it isn’t entirely up to the police deparment to respond to the crisis, that a whole array of social forces and problems having nothing to do enforcement strategies are in play. (Little was said of all these social forces when two years ago, the department claimed credit for lowering the murder rate; then it was enforcement all the way.)
4. The state’s attorney, Mr. Bernstein, remains mute to his role in all of this.
Well, get it straight:
Only one thing has been shown to reduce violent crime consistently, based on every bit of law enforcement history over the last quarter century. From around the country, study after study, and example after example, shows this to be so:
Urban murder is a recidivist dynamic, rooted in the culture of an illicit drug trade and all of the violence that is endemic to that trade. When you lock the right guy up, and keep him locked up, he stops killing. When you don’t, he stays on the street, and shoots people until you do lock him up. So that now, in 2013, we are not only contending with all of those 17 to 20-year-old shooters who are graduating to their first serious violence, we are contending with 30 to 40 percent more of the 19 to 22-year-old shooters who are still out there on the streets because city prosecutors decided that any case they couldn’t win without absolute certainty was a case they were unwilling to charge and further develop and take into a city courtroom. A cursory look at the criminal histories of many current murder suspects in the courthouse computer reveals some of this truth; a more careful perusal of the 2011 and 2012 casefiles of homicide investigators — if made public — would reveal significantly more.
Mr. Bernstein’s record and its net effect are now in evidence. And his belated attempts, after this was first argued last year, to rush back and charge a modestly better percentage of older cases — though they were in no way different prosecution files from when his office first passed on those cases — was reactionary, belated and telling. When a new police commissioner comes to you, in the wake of such criticism, and personally asks you to charge five homicide cases that your office otherwise declined to prosecute, and you agree, what does that say? That the cases suddenly improved? That you are an aggressive prosecutor? That the campaign you ran against the incumbent, declaring she was not as aggressive as you would be — that this was an honest critique? Or does it affirm that your campaign rhetoric was hollow, and that you are, in fact, less aggressive now that the job is yours. Even with Mr. Bernstein’s belated effort to charge some of the older cases, the number of homicide defendants going through the doors of the Mitchell courthouse remains about a third less than under the previous administration of the office.
A state’s attorney who fears a stet or acquittal in murder cases more than he values the fundamental deterrent of a conviction cannot help but produce more violence over time. And while not all of the current crime rate is attributable to the stat-driven machinations of the state’s attorney — there are other systemic problems in the city, to be sure — neither will Mr. Bernstein be any part of the solution until he releases the reins and once again allows homicide commanders to share the responsibility for charging cases with his office. Two successive homicide commanders ended their tenure over Mr. Bernstein’s change in policy; one was demoted and the next quit, and now, here we are counting bodies, having squandered whatever momentum in crime suppression was evident two years ago.
I abide in a most Christian love for the other fellow, and I abhor any man who journeys so much as a step or two laterally to smugly twist the blade of comeuppance into another’s entrails, who revels in the snide and petty gratifications of schadenfreude. A certain restraint, nay, even dignity requires that all of us engaged in civic and civil debate eschew the temptation to such. Better to reflect dispassionately, to encourage insight and meaningful change, to let the past speak for itself without further provocation. More flies with sugar, the other cheek, and so on and so forth.
All that said, I fucking told you so.
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What follows is an exchange from the commentary section after I wrote last year that the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office unwillingness to pursue all but the most winnable murder cases — and a corresponding decline in the number of charged defendants by anywhere from 33 to 45 percent, depending on the time frame — would eventually result in a bump in the homicide rate for the city. Beginning with a certain Mr. Darrow, whose moniker suggests that he may labor at the Mitchell Courthouse, though I have no way of knowing, obviously:
June 18, 2012 at 10:41 p.m.
CLARENCE DARROW says:
One question: if what you say here is true, why hasn’t the murder rate in Baltimore skyrocketed? Nine percent seems like it could be a seasonal/sociological blip.