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Punitive responses to gang violence are not effective

March 28, 2018
Residents of the communities that experience gang crime want it to stop, and there are better ways to make that happen than sending more people to prison for ever longer sentences.

This commentary was originally published in the Lexington Herald Leader.

Residents of communities with high rates of crime want public safety. Their solutions are driven by practical approaches that solve violence with a focus on reducing crime, enhancing community networks and prioritizing resources towards strengthening communities rather than destabilizing them.

State lawmakers are advancing a law proposal — House Bill 169 — that will contribute to the destabilization of neighborhoods in Kentucky’s most neglected localities that have experienced over-policing and violence because lawmakers are unable to adopt meaningful changes that address underlying reasons for violence.

HB 169 is characterized as gang prevention, yet all it does is increase penalties and all it will do is add to gang membership. Most critically, the bill would send young adults and youth to prison for double the normal incarceration period without access to or opportunity for rehabilitative programming. The bill mandates that these first-time offenders serve 85 percent of their sentences and raises all charges one level.

On top of that, the bill broadens the definition of “criminal gang” to three or more people who might simply share a name or live in a certain zipcode or have other attributes, making it simpler for law enforcement to prove gang association.

Extreme penalties that have lengthened prison terms and exacerbated collateral consequences for persons with felony convictions marginalize residents. The punitive criminal-justice system disappears persons into state prisons and jails making them unable to support their families and undermining their ability to obtain living wage employment following release.

In Kentucky, a felony record leads to lifetime consequences that include the loss of voting rights.

Kentucky’s criminal code is complex and currently provides law enforcement with the tools to incapacitate residents convicted of criminal offending, including persons believed to have gang affiliations

According to the Urban Institute, Kentucky is among 44 states that have experienced an increase in time served in prison for all offenses since 2000. In fact, the state has experienced a double-digit increase in the amount of time persons sentenced to state prison are required to serve.

Effective public-safety solutions can be found in neighborhoods most impacted by gang crime. These neighborhoods are mostly black and poor with high rates of unemployment and poverty, underfunded schools and limited access to health care. These are the neighborhoods where more than 70,000 persons are under state supervision.

The consequences are well documented: an increase of over 500 percent in the size of the state’s prison system since 1980, at tremendous social and financial cost.

Residents of the communities that experience gang crime want it to stop, and there are better ways to make that happen than sending more people to prison for ever longer sentences. In the long term, community-based solutions offer opportunities to all residents including better investments in early childhood education, targeted employment initiatives and therapeutic health interventions.

But to respond to immediate concerns, lawmakers must fund efforts that address interpersonal conflicts that often trigger violence.

One evidence-based approach positions “violence interrupters” to locate potentially lethal disputes in progress and respond with conflict-mediation strategies. Interrupters are hired in part for their ability to work among those at risk of violence in the community.

New York City experienced 20 percent fewer killings attributable to the program. And in Chicago neighborhoods, there was a reported 41 percent to 73 percent reduction in shootings and killings — and a 100 percent reduction in retaliation killings.

The interrupters are also important connectors to social services such as education, affordable housing and job training.

Responding to gang crime is challenging. Effective lawmakers have to balance immediate demands against evidence-based practices. Proven interventions will come from community leaders who want to ensure neighborhood safety.

Rather than sucking money out of Kentucky’s General Fund to only amplify costly punishment-based strategies and destabilize our communities, we must employ proven gang intervention models that will produce better outcomes built on community strengths.

The Rev. D. Anthony Everett is an at-large commissioner of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights; the Rev. Donald K. Gillett II is executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches; Kate Miller is advocacy director, ACLU of Kentucky; Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto is executive director, The Institute of Compassion in Justice and Nicole D. Porter is advocacy director of The Sentencing Project.

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