Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

On Treating Violence as a Public-Health Emergency

with one comment

Although it’s unfortunately still not the dominant policy approach in the U.S., it’s also not that controversial to suggest that drugs should be handled as a public-health problem, not a criminal-justice problem. Jakada Imami of the Ella Baker Center argues that we should see homicide as a public-health problem, too:

If we add up all the deaths of all these young, predominantly men of color, and see what we’re looking at. I mean this country went to war over the attack on the World Trade Center and what will we be willing to do when you add up all these numbers of lives lost? Young men right here at home. The level of just trauma right now that people face when you’ve gone to more funerals than graduations. That’s just seen as normal, right? But when you think back to Columbine or the Virginia Tech shooting and you think about the level of resources and the care and support that those communities rightly received – you look at East Oakland or West Oakland or East L.A., you don’t see that level of support even though these communities go through that sort of trauma on a weekly basis. …

You can also triangulate, by looking back, figure out who is most likely to be the victim of a homicide or even kill somebody. Who’s likely? It actually turns out in most communities, that it’s not every single person. It’s also not every single black or brown person. It’s not every single person who lives in a particular neighborhood. It’s a very small subset, a very easily determined population who are most at risk of being killed, just like there are very specific and subset populations that are at risk of heart disease and are at risk of diabetes and any other public health crisis or issue. And so just as you would go about figuring out who most you need to treat first, who most you need to vaccinate first.

At Governing through Crime, Jonathan Simon has some not entirely unrelated thoughts on American responses to murder:

I realize that many Americans assume that murderers deserve no less than to spend their natural lives incarcerated (if not be executed). This is understandable. Killing for us is the cardinal offense (what treason and blasphemy were to the past). We may have different intuitions about how much punishment is enough but we all ought to reflect on at least three penal considerations.

First of all, given the fact that punishment for killing has increased very very substantially in recent decades there is little reason to believe these recent murders and attempted murders would have been deterred if only harsher punishments were in place. …

Nor do we need to keep people in prison for decades and decades just to assure that they will not kill again. Even when we used to let murders out, recidivism was extremely rare. Once someone has spent ten or twenty years in prison, and almost certainly aged to the point where they are over 35, there is very very little reason to fear them, unless their individual prison behavior (like being an enforcer for their racist gang) indicates they have committed themselves to a permanent state of violence. Parole (where it has not been eliminated or reduced to near paralysis by earlier waves of crime fear) allows us to keep those individuals incapacitated while giving the others a huge incentive to do the work on themselves they will need to reassure officials.

Keep in mind that 99+ percent of all murders are done by someone who has never killed before and may never even have been imprisoned for any crime. If you really want to stop a killing before it happens, reducing access to guns for high risk individuals is the only realistic strategy, although more police on the streets and more mental health screening and treatment for those with alarming psychotic behavior could not hurt.

The policy discussion on low-level, nonviolent crimes seems to be getting a lot saner lately, but we are at some point also going to have to confront the tough stuff: violence, and even murder, which mass incarceration isn’t that great at solving, either.

One Response

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  1. Baltimore has attempted this to some degree:

    Although it is not clear that medicalization rhetoric produces informed or saner policy discussion.


    February 3, 2011 at 3:29 pm

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