Tough on Crime, Tough on Children – Is Tough on Everyone

In the spring of 2020, we saw the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, a pandemic unlike anything since 1918. The pandemic forced the closure of cities, packed emergency rooms, and claimed the lives of thousands. Spring also served as the backdrop for the civil rights movement’s resurgence after the tragic death of George Floyd, and, as usual, an anticipated seasonal uptick in some crimes.

As there were now time-delimited factors to consider, the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice examined 11 different offenses for 27 cities, including St. Louis, Missouri.

According to the Commission, homicide rates increased exponentially between the end of May and the end of June, and the increase was led by three states:  Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee.   There was a 37% increase in aggravated assault across all cities, and the spike was not significantly more significant than in previous years.

These additional spikes correlate with COVID-19 response outcomes such as unemployment, food scarcity in food deserts, closure of substance abuse programs, and reduced access to pro-social programs designed for juveniles.

As Missourians sought direction and relief during a national health care emergency of which community violence is a symptom, Missouri responded by enacting and proposing long-term “tough on crime,” tough on people policies.

These temporary crime fluctuations cannot be placed in the same category as longer crime trends.  It is significantly more critical that the solution to a short-term issue not result in long-term peril to communities. The currently proposed “tough on crime” policies leave communities further destabilized and appropriate resources away from schools and prevention programs, favoring retribution over rehabilitation.

These “tough on crime” proposals are reminiscent of a time in policy history that is recognized as a monumental failure.  In the 1980s, the United States deployed these “tough on crime” strategies on the same communities and called it “The War on Drugs.”  This “tough on crime” strategy promoted the use of mandatory minimum sentences, long prison terms, and strict zero-tolerance drug and violence policies.

The United States has spent $200 billion since the inception of the War on Drugs. This includes the prison boom of the 1990s, indirect costs and loss of productivity, and the strain on the criminal justice system (Human Rights Watch, 2019). In order to do this, the U.S. disinvested in under-resourced communities and invested in a retributive system of mass incarceration.

Bruce Western of Harvard University found that a 10% decrease in crime rate occurred with a 10% increase in incarceration, and ultimately the 90% drop in crime from 1993 to 2001 would have happened without the prison boom experienced by the U.S. as a result of “tough on crime” policies.

“Tough on crime” promoted community disorganization by routinely removing members from the community and destabilizing social and familial networks.

Incarceration does not happen in a vacuum and is acknowledged as having a negative impact on the children of incarcerated parents.  Children of incarcerated parents are often diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and other behavior-related disorders. Children of incarcerated parents also tend to show higher instances of school-related issues and involvement in delinquent behavior.

We would be remiss to discuss the proposed “tough on crime” policies that would allow juveniles as young as 14-years-old to be directly filed into adult court.  In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court made the vital distinction between juveniles under the age of 18 and adults.  The court discussed the maturity and cognitive differences between the two, one of the most important being the reduced ability to perform a risk analysis and to resist peer-pressure by juveniles.

Often juveniles are impulsive, and the risk-reward analysis goes no further than considering the act versus the probability of getting caught.  Seldom does a juvenile process legal implication or sentencing.

In November 2019, Missouri’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative and Violence Crime Reduction released its study on the state’s criminal justice system.  A survey among law enforcemt officers concluded that the most critical barrier to reducing violent crime was a lack of community-based resources for individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Accountability to the victims of crime is not overshadowed by looking at programs that are best for the community where the community can feel safe and not safe for “now.”  There has to the recognition that the community and the victims all can be empowered by having a voice in what collaborative justice looks like, but voices cannot be lifted until they are fed, healthy, educated, and valued.

Kenya Brumfield-Young, MLS, MSCJ
Assistant Professor  of Criminology/Criminal Justice
Saint Louis University

Note: We thank Professor Brumfield-Young for contributing her expertise to the current discussion of juvenile justice reform. To take action on House Bill 12, which is scheduled for a hearing on August 17 and could lead to more children being certified to stand trial and be sentenced as adults, please use this email template.

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