Sunday, April 01, 2012

East Austin needs more family-centered approach to crime than touted by neighborhood groups

A story yesterday in the Austin Statesman ("East Austin neighborhoods want downtown-style safety measures," March 31) voiced proposals from neighborhood associations near Grits' own residence in central east Austin aiming to crack down on repeat offenders in the same manner as an aggressive campaign against repeat offenders downtown. As often happens, tragedy heightened the rhetoric and political urgency of activist critiques. The article opened:
A fatal shooting this month at 13th and Chicon streets has riled several neighborhood association leaders, who say they want to see certain downtown public safety measures expanded to central East Austin, where a struggle to stop prostitution and drug activity has continued for decades.

Police and officials with the Travis County district attorney's office said an initiative is in the works to curb crime in the area, which is notorious for outdoor sales of narcotics at all hours of the day. But they declined to discuss specifics.

For many residents, the most significant challenge is putting away the dealers who keep coming back to the streets even after multiple arrests.

"Prosecution is the problem," said Lee Sherman, president of the Kealing Neighborhood Association, which is bordered by 12th Street, Chicon Street, Rosewood Avenue and Comal Street.

He and members of at least four nearby neighborhood organizations said that for months they have been pushing Austin police and district attorney officials to create an enhanced prosecution program in central East Austin similar to the one in the downtown entertainment district that targets repeat offenders and other violators.

But neighborhood efforts have been to little avail, Sherman said.

"We have been actively seeking these changes for years and years and years, and this is an example of what happens when they are not applied," Sherman said of the latest killing near his home. "If any area needs these tools, ours does. I don't understand how our area keeps getting left out of these types of programs."

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said they are "just in the planning stages" of creating an action plan in central East Austin.

"It might not look exactly like the downtown initiative," she said. "It has to be tailored to the needs of the area and what the crime statistics show us, but we will absolutely include the neighborhoods in the conversation."
The euphemism "enhanced prosecution" means in practice that "district attorney officials comb through reports filed by Austin police officers patrolling that zone and look for cases that qualify for tougher punishment," according to the Statesman.

Grits for one is glad to see the DA isn't automatically acquiescing to neighborhood groups on this because transplanting hyper-punitive strategies from the Central Business District to east Austin would be a terrible idea. I've lived just a few blocks away from the area suggested for expanded enforcement for the past 22 years and have had a front-row seat witnessing many of the cited problems. IMO just jacking up enhancements and sentences after the fact exacerbates the underlying, crime-causing dynamic. Why not seek out approaches for intervention - like the "High Point" or "drug-market intervention" (DMI) model (see a manual [pdf] on the idea from the USDOJ) - rather than a straight-up crack down? After all, how many different public officials over the years have announced their own version of "zero tolerance" initiatives in the area? (The "drug free zone" signs in the area for years have been viewed by the neighborhood as a source of ironic humor.) Central east Austin has one of the highest ratios in the city of children with incarcerated parents. Cracking down is a big part of how this neighborhood got where it is today. The High-Point approach is more family and neighborhood based, involving engaging the family and community leadership in keeping a young person out of "the life," using the threat of immediate prosecution as a strong, immediate motivator. Here's a good summary of the process in micro from The Economist:
POLICE watched seven people sell drugs in Marshall Courts and Seven Oaks, two districts in south-eastern Newport News, in Virginia. They built strong cases against them. They shared that information with prosecutors. But then the police did something unusual: they sent the seven letters inviting them to police headquarters for a talk, promising that if they came they would not be arrested. Three came, and when they did they met not only police and prosecutors, but also family members, people from their communities, pastors from local churches and representatives from social-service agencies. Their neighbours and relatives told them that dealing drugs was hurting their families and communities. The police showed them the information they had gathered, and they offered the seven a choice: deal again, and we will prosecute you. Stop, and these people will help you turn your lives around.
The drug dealing that underlies much east Austin street crime is not of the high-end variety but instead mostly operates at the subsistence level, where a minimum wage job would generally be quite competitive if they were available. As Stephen Leavitt famously demonstrated in Freakonomics, drug dealing doesn't pay much and most drug dealers live with their parents  (an observation that applies in spades to central east Austin, in this writer's observation). So the High Point model has great potential if it successfully engages, parents, grandparents, pastors, and other who are influential in young people's lives. The DA's Office still has the option to prosecute if somebody continues to commit crimes (as some inevitably will), but the approach has a good track record and seems more tailored to the particular needs of central east Austin than merely enhanced sentences for young offenders.


Jeff said...

Grits, I'm curious to know if this is working in the communities that have tried it. Simply amazing. Not to be a jerkoff, but this is suspiciously similar to Hillary's 'It takes a village...'. You know the rest. But if it works! Thanks for sharing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jeff, from what I've heard the approach has gotten rave reviews where it's been tried.

Brennan said...

I attended the Kealing N'hood Assn mtg and heard there that the DA's office is indeed implementing a DMI program for the area. Since 12th and Chicon has been notorious for 20 years (I went to Kealing Jr. High then, and it was a problem even then), its seems like its worth a shot.

Natralee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natralee said...

The Weed and Seed program took a similar approach to DMI. After many years, it failed to meet its objectives, lost funding, and has been discontinued. The Enhanced Prosecution Program has been more effective at reducing frequent felony arrests where it has been applied in Austin (it was expanded to Downtown due to its success on East 5th). DMI has worked in some places and failed in others. We are concerned that DMI will be a re-tread of an approach that has already been tried and failed. After 40 years, we are wanting what has reduced crime elsewhere in Austin. There should be meaningful prosecution and sentencing for repeat felony offenders, regardless of race. We cannot selectively enforce the law. I believe the other causes of crime should be addressed as well (housing, healthcare, drug rehab, mental healthcare, etc.) but law enforcement cannot be left out of the equation. Drug dealing causes a lot of collateral damage and I'm tired of seeing my neighbors being impacted and even leaving our neighborhood because it's an unsuitable place for family life.

Maegan Ellis said...

Grits, thanks for your interest in this issue. I'd like to invite you to a meeting of our Neighborhood Association so you can hear all about the initiatives and programs we're trying to get applied in our area beyond the enhanced prosecution. Brennan's right when he says we're working to bring the DMI/High Point program, as well as the Quality of Life Ordinances in place in many parts of the city - but not ours. I appreciate your perspective but we view enhanced prosection as just one of many tools and strategies that can be helpful in curtailing the continued drug, prostitution, and violent crime that affects all our families.

Maegan Ellis said...

BTW, we're Kealing Neighborhood Association and our next meeting is at the Carver Library, Saturday, May 5, at 10:30am.

Mari said...

Interesting article. I am closing on a house just one square block away from 12th and Chicon (13th and Poquito) and I'm curious what neighborhood association I would belong to if anyone is privy to the information. It appears I'm beyond the boundaries of Kealing.