Innovators in the field of criminal justice don't get an easy ride. There's a built-in reluctance of police, policymakers and even academics to upset long-established ways of doing things. That's understandable. In a world where actions (or inactions) can often have life-or-death consequences, a
conservative approach can seem like the safe way to go.
But challenging times deserve bold responses. And we are living through such a challenging time now—
one that has called into question some of the basic premises of our justice system. Even as crime rates
are declining nationwide—continuing a 20-year-trend—the number of people we send to prison each
year continues to rise, With more than two million people behind bars, the U.S. is now the world's
leading jailer. More troubling still, over half of those in jail today are African-Americans and Latinos,
and the neighborhoods they come from—and will eventually return to—are experiencing a level of
violence and crime the majority never sees.
How do we change this landscape? For the past 20 years, John Jay College Prof. David Kennedy,
co-founder of The National Network of Safe Communities , has been developing a strategy directed
at the relatively small number of gangbangers and drug dealers responsible for the violence in their
neighborhoods. He faced headwinds of skepticism—often appearing to be a lonely voice. But the strategy,
he says, demonstrably works. This month, he published a book, “Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street
Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America,” that describes his work.
He was interviewed earlier this week on CUNY-TV's “Criminal Justice Matters” program by TCR
Executive Editor Stephen Handelman. The interview will be repeated on CUNY TV in the New York
Metropolitan area Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 10 am, and after that will be available as a free
iTunes download. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
The Crime Report: You write in your book that the way we think about crime in America today almost
guarantees failure. That is going to alarm a lot of people.
David Kennedy: It ought to.
DK: Basically there have been two ways we think about crime in this country. We think we need to fix
the neighborhoods and crime will take care of itself; or we have to lock everybody up. We have been
locking everybody up, (yet) especially in poor minority communities all across the country homicide is
still an epidemic.
Another thing we know now is that when we lock up all the men, especially, we damage them and their
families and their communities . They feel like they essentially exist in American apartheid.
TCR: What does your strategy involve?
DK: Something really narrow and specific and startlingly commonsense, once you get your head around
it. It turns out the most important crime problems in these neighborhoods are high levels of violence.
And the chaos and violence that comes with public drug activity, public drug markets. It (also) turns out
that both of those problems are driven by a very small numbers of people. Our research says in the most
dangerous neighborhoods it is five percent of the 18-30 year old men who are part of that gang and
(We) put community people and law enforcement and social service providers together in a very
pragmatic working partnership. (They) sit down with that five percent who are driving everything
and say to them—this is very parental at the end of the day—your community loves you, but needs
the violence to stop. If you are going to deal, don't deal on grandma's front porch. Take it down low
somewhere. We will help you, if you let us. But this is not a negotiation: if you keep on doing what you
are doing, we are putting you on explicit prior notice of what is going to happen (prosecutions and
TCR: And it's working?
DK: I went to a meeting of US Attorneys in Florida last week, where the police chief in North Charleston
related his experience with this drug market intervention. Since they had their sitdown , there have
been no shootings in that neighborhood. I can't always promise that, but that's the type of outcome you
get. Big massive changes.
TCR: Who gets changed the most? Cops, community leaders, the kids? Or all of the above?
DK: Yes (all of the above). This is the really big insight that has come out of about 25 years of working
this problem with a really dedicated growing national community. It's hiding in plain sight. Nobody
involved in this likes it. Everybody is so alienated and angry and suspicious, that they can't see how
much they don't like it— but everybody hates what's going on.
TCR: Meaning the violence?
DK: Not just the violence, but the racialized animosity between the law enforcement and the
communities, everybody going to lockup, everybody getting stopped on the street, the cops kicking in
doors and serving warrants but never solving the problem. Everybody is miserable—including the guys
on the street—who behind closed doors would tell you that they are scared to death and don't like
what's going on and don't see any way out.
When you have these community interventions, which is essentially what they are, the cops get to see
that everybody in the community isn't living off of drug money which they thought, they get to see that
the guys on the corner aren't sociopaths, which is what they thought. The guys on the corner get to see
cops saying I didn't come on the job to lock you and all your friends up, we would like you to thrive and
we are going to respect you enough to tell you how to do that.
They see mothers and grandmothers they've written off as on the pipe and complicit standing up in
front of really big scary bad guys and reading them the riot act. Everybody moves. It's the most amazing
TCR: You take a very skeptical approach to a lot of the solutions we have been talking about over the
last decade or decades: early childhood interventions, gun buys. Surely those interventions achieved a
DK: The fact is that while we have been doing all that, black homicide victimization, especially young
black male homicide victimization, has continued to go up, as our national crime rates have gone
down. There's been no peace dividend for those folks in those neighborhoods. Our incarceration
count has continued to rise. The kind of stop snitching disengagement from law enforcement in these
neighborhoods is getting worse. If that's success you can have it.
TCR: Do you sometimes feel like nobody is listening?
DK: Oh people are listening. This stuff is becoming almost mainstream in law enforcement. The
communities get it, the communities want it. Those of us who have opinions for a living have yet to
Stephen Handelman is Executive Editor of The Crime Report. The Criminal Justice Matters program,
including the interviews with David Kennedy, and with Sheila Rule, co-founder of “Think Outside the Cell“
will be downloadable with a link on TCR next week.