Among the weapons brought to bear against Richmond’s record wave of violence in the 1990s were stiff federal laws targeting drug dealers and firearms violators. Authorities say the effort has paid off, says the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The bloodshed has subsided since 1994, when the city had 161 slayings and the nation’s highest per-capita homicide rate. Last year’s toll of 39 did not even lead the state. Recent figures from the U.S. Sentencing Commission and other studies say Richmond now is a national leader in both federal crack cocaine and firearm prosecutions that lead to long prison sentences.
“There’s no doubt to us that the city is fundamentally a safer place than it was a dozen years ago,” said U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride. The degree to which drug and firearms convictions reduce violence is unclear, many criminologists say. Homicides dropped in Richmond, but they also did in some other cities where tough laws were used to a lesser extent. Todd Clear, dean of the school of criminal justice at Rutgers University, has studied the impact on communities where young men churn in and out of jails and prisons. Removing killers and rapists has a high public safety payoff, but the benefits diminish as people are removed for lesser crimes, he said. “There all these sort of ripple effects [so] that even if you did get an immediate, short-term impact on crime, you also have long-term, generational, infrastructural kinds of effects on community life that are extremely troubling.”