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Quick and Dirty

Being Tough on Crime Doesn’t Pay

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/23/2005

A recently released report on crime and incarceration in Baltimore City claims that, in some neighborhoods, locking up more people seems to lead to higher crime rates.

“Moving huge segments of African-American males [into prison] is not having the desired result,” says Malik Russell, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Justice Policy Institute. “It has a potential to have a destabilizing impact on the community.”

The institute issued last week a 21-page policy brief, “Tipping Point: Maryland’s Overuse of Incarceration and the Impact on Public Safety,” that leans heavily on research by Todd R. Clear, professor of Criminal Justice at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Keith Harries, a professor of geography at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Clear conducted survey research and statistical analysis in high-crime neighborhoods in Tallahassee, Fla., and found that incarcerating too many members of a community (he did not specify how many) led to higher crime rates than would ordinarily be expected. “[T]he effects of imprisonment undermine the building blocks of social order,” Clear wrote. His findings were turned into a chapter of the 2003 book Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment.

Harries studied selected U.S. Census tracts in East and West Baltimore (including such crime-plagued neighborhoods as Park Heights and Pimlico) in the 1990s, and, according to his paper, which was published in 2004 in the journal Urban Geography, found “remarkable persistence of high rates of violence in Baltimore in the face of an aggressive public policy of crime prevention, albeit from a ‘control’ perspective.”

“In short,” according to the Justice Policy Institute’s “Tipping Point” brief, “the crime control findings were not what they should have been: aggressive enforcement coupled with a decreasing youth cohort should be associated with declining crime. Yet in some areas the opposite occurred.”

While Harries’ study did not examine rates of incarceration per se, he says he endorses the Justice Policy Institute study.

“My perspective is that this is a component of neighborhood crime,” Harries tells City Paper. Overincarceration “is extremely corrosive. When they [criminals] are removed from the neighborhood, they’re unavailable for family formation, they’re disenfranchised, they’re basically unemployable. So assuming they go back to the neighborhood, which is a generally accepted supposition, this just undermines the general effort of encouraging family formation and social cohesion.”

Eric Lotke, research director of the Justice Policy Institute and the “Tipping Point” brief’s co-author, says the findings aren’t that surprising given what is known about social networks and the importance of family cohesion. He suggests that a more straightforward relationship with crime and criminals can bring better results than Baltimore has seen.

“In Boston, the authorities communicated with the bad guys,” Lotke says. “They showed them the indictments, told them what they had to do to avoid those indictments. They [the drug dealers] stopped shooting guns and they moved indoors.”

Funded by grants from the Open Society Institute and the Abell Foundation, the brief suggests that the Maryland state legislature end mandatory-minimum sentencing, grant ex-felons the right to vote, and award “diminution credits”—or time off their sentences—for prisoners participating in state programs such as Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation, and Treatment (RESTART) while incarcerated.

When contacted, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services had not seen the briefing paper, but said that RESTART—a project to help reintegrate criminals back into society through job training, drug treatment, life skills, and other intensive programs—is just starting out.

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