Thursday, July 18, 2013

Deterrence vs Fairness

At the nonprofit where I work, one of the services we provide is pre-court diversion. What that means is that youth who are arrested for the first time for a misdemeanor offense are referred to us as an alternative to going to court. Our job is to work with that young person (and their parents) to prevent them from further involvement with the juvenile justice system. That means providing counseling, education and restorative services.

Years ago I realized that about a quarter to a third of the young people referred to that program never showed up. It wasn't that they set up an appointment and didn't keep it. They simply ignored the referral (perhaps more specifically, their parent's ignored it). It struck me that this group likely represented the highest risk group of young people referred to the program so I had lots of questions about who they were and why they didn't show up.

When an opportunity arose for grant funds to find some answers to those questions, we took it. We hired a staff person to track these families down and talk to them. The first thing we learned is that I was right - these young people had a significantly higher rate of re-offending. They were also almost all African American.

But the more significant information we learned was why they didn't respond to the referral. The parents weren't militant or angry or criminal. They simply didn't trust "the system" to do what was in the best interests of their child. In other words, they didn't trust that the system would treat their child fairly. And so they opted out.

I thought about that when I read this fascinating article by John Buntin where he contrasts the LAPD's success in stemming gang violence with the "stop and frisk" approach of the NYPD.
“Why do we obey the law?” asks Tracey Meares, a Yale Law School professor and a leader in this field. The answer to that question, it turns out, is not just because we think we are going to be punished if we don’t. Meares’s research showed that even felons care about and respond to perceptions of fairness...

The stop-and-frisk approach in New York City puts a priority on deterrence over fairness, Meares says. The purpose behind stop-and-frisk is to deter youths in high-crime neighborhoods from carrying guns by increasing the likelihood that they will interact with the police. The N.Y.P.D. approach may be effective theoretically, Meares says, but it comes with high costs. The police must make large numbers of stops in order to make the threat of being stopped credible — that’s expensive. And, to the extent that communities view such tactics as unfair, the police lose legitimacy.

“There is a direct link between the feeling that police are illegitimate and high levels of violence,” said David M. Kennedy, who helped design Operation Ceasefire. “When you get into the communities that are the most distressed, the feeling that the police are not legitimate goes up and violence goes up.” (In New York a recent curtailing of stop-and-frisk has, in fact, coincided with a decline in homicides.) If academic theories of legitimacy are correct, the police can encourage high-crime neighborhoods to comply with the law by making some fairly simple changes to their own behavior: by explaining police actions, by listening to people’s grievances and by demonstrating respect.
When a "justice system" doesn't demonstrate fairness and respect for the very people it is designed to serve, it loses its legitimacy. That is the dangerous precipice on which police departments like NYPD tread with the African American (and increasingly Latino) community.
A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that just 14 percent of African-Americans had a great deal of confidence in the proposition that their local police officers treated blacks and whites equally, compared with 38 percent of whites who thought so.
Both stop and frisk as well as the Zimmerman verdict do grave damage to our attempts to reduce gun violence and crime in our country. Its why the racism that fuels the lack of respect and fairness is so deadly.

1 comment:

  1. u r so right...i don't think zimmerman shouldn't of even have a gun!!! wanna be cop!!! come on!! ppl tell me