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What options for a city 'made for murder'?

by and

Second of an occasional series.

Rochester has the highest murder rate in New YorkState --- and, for a city its size, one of the highest in the country. Overwhelmingly, the crimes are committed by young, black males. Overwhelmingly, the victims are young black males.

How, in a city once known for its strong industries, good school system, and superior cultural offerings, has this happened? What can be done about it? What works?

In a recent interview, RIT criminal justice professor John Klofas described the factors that have shaped Rochester's inner-city neighborhoods, where most of the violent crime takes place. (That discussion, published in the April 12 edition of City Newspaper, is online at He also described changes in the criminal-justice system and other reforms --- measures taken in some other cities --- that could begin to have an effect.

Klofas is a longtime observer of criminal-justice efforts, in Rochester and throughout the nation. He is frequently called on for advice by the criminal-justice system here and in other cities, and he co-chaired the public-safety committee of Mayor Bob Duffy's transition team.

What follows is the second part of an edited version of the interview with Klofas.

City: What works and what doesn't work to deal with a problem like this?

Klofas: One of the most interesting things to happen in the last decade or 15 years is the growing evidence that the criminal justice system can have an impact on serious violence, even when underlying social conditions don't change. I think there are things that police departments do, that courts do, that prosecutors do, that the criminal justice system does. I think when it focuses on keeping people alive and preventing homicides and preventing crime, it can be successful and still have the social conditions that give rise to these problems in the first place.

What kinds of things specifically?

Making institutions effective --- making the criminal justice system effective. Most people growing up who have contact with the criminal justice system learn that it doesn't have very significant teeth for them. They get arrested 5, 8, 12 times before anything significant happens, and then it's not much. And then it's excused because they're a juvenile or a youthful offender, and then they get into the serious stuff. So I think people get conditioned to the criminal justice system not necessarily working very well.

I think what works is convincing people who are in serious crime that the criminal justice system is going to work: identifying people who are involved in serious crime and providing a strong deterrent message. And parallel to that, providing an alternative way of getting by, another approach so they don't have to find everything in the gang, or the group. You know, provide some real future for them. That I think is one thing that works.

I think early intervention can work. I think things that normalize life for young people. For example, the evidence on visiting nurse programs --- in particular, visiting prenatal-care programs --- is pretty strong for affecting crime 15 years down the line. It brings people into a home who then see and repair a whole range of problems. If there's violence in the home, that gets addressed. If there are nutrition problems in the home, if there's isolation: there's a sort of gentle normalization process that goes on that's missing.

But when you talk about making the criminal justice system work, it sounds like you're talking about harsh penalties.

I think there's some of that in there, in the process. There has to be, I think, a realistic threat of harsh penalties for people to be convinced that deterrence is in fact a reality. But I also think that if the whole thing works, those harsh penalties are less numerous.

Is this like what Rudolph Giuliani did in New York City, cracking down on little stuff?

What Giuliani did is not the same thing, but I think there's a lot to be said for what he did. As I figure it, before he started, there were 2,300 murders in New York City. Now there are 550, and it's held. It's held for a long time. They did a variety of things. They put resources where crime was occurring in real time: today, where is it? That stuff. But second, it was a very aggressive approach to policing, which had the effect of discouraging people from carrying guns. That meant that when people were going out in the street, they worried about being stopped by the police, getting either a local or federal sentence for having possession of a weapon. So they would leave the weapon home.

When you talk about aggressive policing, you're not talking about in-your-face bullying by police?

I don't think you have to have that, but I think you have to have a police presence and a police response to relatively low-level activity, which suggests that if you're carrying guns there's a likelihood that you're going to be stopped and detected. And if you're stopped and have a gun on you illegally, there will be pretty sharp consequences.

People always say they carry guns for protection, so there's this sort of competition between what matters most: the threat from the criminal justice system or the threat from one's neighborhood. Somehow you have to reverse the equation and make it safer in people's minds to not carry a gun than to carry a gun.

There's this sort of tipping-point effect; you reach a point where fewer and fewer people are carrying guns, so you have less and less reason to even contemplate carrying a gun, so you feel safer and safer, and safety grows exponentially.

And you may still have the hardest of the hard-core criminals, but you've got this ring of people out there who are not quite as committed to the gangs?

That's exactly right. You have people whose behavior now is more influenced by the deterrent threat of the criminal justice system than by the perception of needing to carry a gun for other reasons. I think that's what happened in New York. I don't think it was the severity of sanctions as much as the risk of running into police. All that low-level enforcement stuff meant that anybody could be stopped anytime.

There's no question there's a real competition between the individual liberty rights --- the right to not be hassled --- and the aggressive models of policing. That's an unresolved situation. And in some neighborhoods, that equation gets worked out very differently than it does in others.

Is that what you would recommend to the new chief? That kind of aggressive policing in the crescent and not on Park Avenue?

It's a very serious question. There's really not an easy answer. At both ends, you're dealing with dreadful consequences. I think in the end, preservation of life is the most significant value that you can pursue. I also think that all of this can be done constitutionally.

Can you do it without dramatically increasing the number of cops?

New York certainly didn't do it without dramatically increasing police. They increased the number of police significantly. There are a lot of things you can do without necessarily increasing the number of police. Some of the stuff they did here was with the joint forces [state police assisting Rochester police efforts in targeted neighborhoods]: borrowing cops, essentially, which has been helpful, I think. I think there's a lot to be said for community-policing kinds of interventions that reduce social distance and engage neighborhoods in the same process.

One of the other significant findings in all of this is that the stronger the neighborhood, the lower the crime rate. The Chicago studies have clearly suggested that this is very important. It's not entirely clear the sort of chicken-egg combination, but certainly in neighborhoods where people won't respond to problems because they're fearful on the street in front of their homes, who won't call the police or who won't give police information about a serious crime because they're fearful: those circumstances become conducive to more crime rather than less crime.