Herring Wrestles with Root Causes of Crime — and Comes up Short

Michael Herring, who has just announced his resignation as Richmond Commonwealth Attorney to become a law partner at McGuireWoods, has been an effective prosecutor. He has worked hand-in-glove with Richmond police, and the city has one of the highest murder-clearance rates of any inner-city jurisdiction in the country. But he’s become increasingly frustrated. After a lengthy period of decline, violent crimes are on the rise again.

“We couldn’t correlate it to the drug markets in the way that we used to be able to do in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s.” Herring told Community Idea Stations. “We have literally used every arrow in our quiver, that is us, the police department, city hall, to try to tamp down the violence.” Even though Richmond police emphasize community policing and building trust, Herring said residents in communities most affected by the violence are less willing to cooperate. “We would go out and say to communities, if you don’t help us, we can’t prosecute the cases and prevent the crime. A pretty simply message, right? And yet, it didn’t seem to resonate.”

In his effort to understand what was happening, Herring co-researched and co-authored an inquiry into the root causes of crime. That inquiry, “Beyond Containment,” provides few answers, advocates few remedies, and is notable for its humility in purporting to understand complex reality. “Crime, like any behavior, is a complex function of individual traits and external realities,” he and co-author Iman Shabazz write. “Economic factors, housing patterns, peer culture, school experiences, family dynamics, and health issues can all contribute to criminal behavior.” Mostly, the treatise raises questions for discussion.

Representing the distilled experience of one of Virginia’s most seasoned prosecutors, the report is well worth reading. (Mercifully, it is short, clear, and free of criminologist jargon.) Sadly, however, the report employs a politically “progressive” frame of analysis and ignores insights from conservative research and theory. As such, while it does contain some fresh insights — the discussion of how social media inflames antagonisms between rival gangs is especially interesting — it largely misses the boat.

“Beyond Containment” starts with the premise that the city is over-incarcerated. “We have learned that incarceration and or conviction actually do little to deter chronic crime because neither addresses the triggers for criminal behaviors,” Herring writes.

Herring acknowledges that individuals who engage in criminal behavior are, to some degree, responsible for their actions and should be held accountable for them. But he asks if “larger systemic and societal forces come into play.” “Beyond Containment” explores those larger systemic and societal forces.

Trauma. Research has shown that a high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score, an inventory of traumatic events in childhood, is associated with criminality. While trauma may arise from parental neglect and abuse, “entire ethnic groups or communities can have traumatic reactions to group marginalization, historical events, exposure to several violence, or even media coverage of national and historic events,” Herring writes. “Crime is not always a function of personal choice. Sometimes crime is a manifestation of a person’s effort to cope with environmental and social deficits.”

Herring poses “questions for discussion.” Among them: How has trauma shaped the lives of Richmond residents? Are there connections between historical cultural trauma experienced by certain groups? What would trauma-sensitive policing look like? “Can we reasonably expect residents not to behave violently when their neighborhoods are violent?”

Poverty. Poverty creates conditions that can make crime an attractive option: insufficient income, chronic underemployment, unstable housing, poor education, and health issues derived from stress and low self-esteem. Richmond has a 25% poverty rate, and 40% of its children are growing up in poverty. But the relationship between poverty and crime is not linear. “Crime rates remain pretty stable as a neighborhood becomes less and less affluent.” But, then, poverty can disrupt the parenting process, and when it does, “neighborhood crime will rapidly increase because of the nature of teen peer relationships.”

Health. People who show up repeatedly in criminal courts are the same people who access the emergency room for their health care needs. Lacking adequate healthcare, they often self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. Herring asks, “Does improving a person’s health reduce his or her likelihood to offend?”

Race & Identity. The population of Richmond courtrooms and detention facilities is “decidedly brown,” notes Herring, who himself is African-American. “We must reflect on whether some of our current methods for maintaining public safety evolved from laws and policies geared historically toward the suppression of certain residents.”

Herring notes the discrepancy between the percentage of blacks in the population and the incidence of crime. The population is 48% African-American, but 88% of violent offenders are black, and 77$ of victims are black. “Does the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation constitute a sort of cultural trauma internalized by our Black residents?”

Housing. Herring draws attention to the correlation between concentrated poverty and crime. Less than 5% of the city’s population live in the city’s six public housing projects, yet 15% of the city’s violent crime occurred in those areas. “We are especially concerned about the young men whose pride seems to hang on defending and avenging these ‘street’ or neighborhood identities rather than building on strong family or school connections,” he writes. He points to a decision to disband one of Richmond’s most notorious projects, Blackwell, and move residents to mixed-income neighborhoods. “Is mixed-income housing the answer? Or did we simply displace the poverty and crime to an area where we can’t see it?”

Education & Youth Programs. Most crimes are committed by men under 35, a third of violent crime  by school-aged teens. Richmond school teachers and administrators say there are “insufficient resources” to serve the students’ many needs. Increasingly, students “must navigate environmental trauma in their neighborhoods and behavioral distractions during the school day.” Herring sees the “after-school window” of time as especially problematic. “We wonder whether a dollar spent on after-school activities yields a greater return than a dollar on traditional law enforcement.”

Social Media & Culture. Technology seems to exacerbate crime in a way that has yet to be studied, Herring writes. “Gone are the days when it took days or weeks for inflammatory remarks to reach a rival in another neighborhood. Instead, the response time is instantaneous. Disputes remain active, carried on via text message, snapchat, or other platforms, and often in public (at least virtually). … We want to know more about crime in the age of technology, and whether we need to respond with new tactics.”

Law Enforcement. Herring’s main concern here is what police officers can do to break down barriers and rebuild trust with the inner-city population. Here, he does not take “progressive” dogma for granted. Rather, he raises questions that we should all be asking.

Should police officers be “tough on crime” and target even minor offenses to make a community safer? Should prosecutors push for harsh sentences and as many convictions or guilty pleas as possible? Advocates argue that stuff sentencing seems to improve public safety. But critics respond that the long-term effects of high rates of arrest and conviction damages families and communities, causing more harm than they prevent. Perhaps treatment, intervention, and alternative programs that reduce convictions and rehabilitate offenders would be a better approach. These programs are expensive but nothing is as expensive as incarceration.

Bacon’s bottom line. Here’s what “Beyond Incarceration” ignores or under-emphasizes: the rise of illegitimacy and the breakdown of family structure; the prevalence of substance abuse; the increase in child neglect & abuse, and the infliction of childhood trauma; the “broken windows” effect in which ignoring small crimes fosters a sense of permissiveness and disorder in public spaces; the erosion of order and discipline within schools; and the spreading conviction, aided and abetted by social justice warriors, that law enforcement is racist and illegitimate.

There is not the slightest hint in “Beyond Incarceration” that criminal behavior in African-American communities was much lower during the Jim Crow era than it is today, and it did not explode until the 1960s, after Civil Rights had been won and the War on Poverty commenced. One would never imagine that many of the laws resulting in mass incarceration were enacted with broad support in black communities as a reaction to drug epidemics that were tearing those communities apart. I would urge Herring to consider that the reason why inner-city residents are less cooperative with police than a few years ago is that the “social justice” movement has done such a thorough job of blaming racism for all social ills and de-legitimizing law enforcement — a pattern that has been replicated in black-majority city after black-majority city across the country and almost nowhere else.

I do believe that Virginia may be over-incarcerated, especially for victimless crimes such as marijuana possession. Putting young men in jail and prison does make it harder for them to become husbands and fathers. Aspects of the criminal justice system do need reform, and as a society, we could do more to promote rehabilitation. But I would argue that no substance abuser or criminal ever straightened himself out by blaming racism. People turn around their lives only by accepting responsibility for their own lives.

I wish Herring had expressed that fundamental truth.

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12 responses to “Herring Wrestles with Root Causes of Crime — and Comes up Short

  1. re: ” People turn around their lives only by accepting responsibility for their own lives.

    I wish Herring had expressed that fundamental truth.”

    I think it might well be a “fundamental truth” to those who were brought up that way.

    Not everyone is a “good” parent.

    People who have been on the receiving end of systematic discrimination are easily pushed into a mindset where problems are not their fault but instead bad stuff done to them by the system. They pass that on to their kids who then adopt it – get older – and pass that on to THEIR kids.

    There are a LOT of folks that do this – not just those in the lower economic tiers. But when a kid does go to a good school and does succeed – many will develop their own sense of responsibility despite an irresponsible parent – but in folks whose great grandparents were slaves and their own parents denied a decent public education – it becomes so much easier to adopt a “blame others” attitude.

  2. Larry, you live in a world without free will. Every adult person has free will and can make decisions. Clearly, our DNA and life experiences affect all of us. And, if we had a life without bumps, we all might make better decisions. But most people have bumps and warts but make more good decisions than bad ones. Some don’t.

    Through most of human history virtually everyone lived at the subsistence level many, many times worse than those among us you wish to excuse. Yet most people made good decisions or humanity would have destroyed itself generations and generations ago.

    I’m a strong believer in second chances, especially for younger people. But at some point, all of us must be responsible for the choices we make. It’s part of being a human being except in the mind of the Woke. But they deny the essence of humanity.

  3. TMT – I’m a big believer in Free Will but I also am pragmatic enough to acknowledge that those who were subject to slavery and Jim Crow did not have the same opportunities.

    You talk about “subsistence”. Do you think the free white folks trying to subsist inVa were no different than the slaves trying to subsist?

    And I also acknowledge that if your daddy did not have a good education that what he passes on to you is different than if your daddy had a good education.

    You are not only a product of DNA – you are a product what your parents give to you as they raise you and the plain truth is if the parent is poorly educated – they lack the ability to make well informed decisions and because they do – the kids don’t get that either.

    “free will” does not overcome this – for most folks. Some do rise about it but the vast majority do not. Think about the one kid who does make the pros versus the thousands that did not. The same is true of kids whose parents are badly educated and can barely take care of themselves – and some cannot and rely on welfare.

    Are you saying that the kids who live in abject poverty – have “free will’ and it’s the same “free will” that kids of wealthy parents have?

    Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it is the job of govt to make it all equal but I DO think to refuse to acknowledge these things and claim that we’re all “equal” because we all have “free will” is not dealing with the realities.

    • Larry, please explain why crime rates among African-Americans are so much higher today than they were during Jim Crow.

    • This will be short because I am out of town on short vacation and I hate keying on this little keyboard.
      Michael Herring’s departure will
      Be a great loss for Richmond. He is an effective and thoughtful prosecutor, who has seen the need to go beyond the traditional criminal justice system. Whatever one thinks of his effort to get at the root sources of crime, one needs to give him credit for taking a proactive stance. It is to everyone’s benefit to try to nip crime at the root source, rather wait to respond with prosecution and incarceration when it happens. I fear that there will be little follow-up without his being there to encourage it.
      In his comments about distrust of police being the result of the efforts of the social justice movement, l think Jim has the cart before the horse. There is ample evidence that minorities were discriminated against by police long before the social justice movement brought it to national attention. For example, the police will raid housing developments and make arrests for marijuana possession, but I don’t hear of such raids in VCU or UR apartments.

    • Human history is full of slavery. Ever read the Bible? You and I are each more likely to have ancestors that were slaves in Europe or the Middle East than slaveholders. And there was no middle class. Moreover, feudalism had a lot of aspects similar to slavery. The bottom-level vassals were tied to their landlord. They had no freedom to change their economic situation. Do you think your ancestors were lords or vassals? I suspect my ancestors largely lived in huts and squeaked out a living for centuries. They were free in name only.

      My point is most human beings lived miserable, marginal lives in conditions that may have included a form of bondage to others. Yet, humanity did not destroy itself in crime and riots. Our ancestors may have been better than us; they survived. They somehow managed to stay human and use their free will to make more good choices than bad choices.. The idea that African-Americans are somehow incapable of doing what their ancestors did is illogical. Every human being has free will. We can always chose between good and evil no matter what our ancestors’ condition. Human history proves this by the fact that we continue to exist despite our past.

      • You are right TMT – but have you heard this is America and we promise equal opportunity to all…

        I’m a little confused about “free will”. Are you saying that a black kid busted for marijuana and drawn into the criminal justice system had the “free will” to not do it and the white kid that did it – and did not get arrested also had “free will” but it didn’t matter as much?

        So after slavery – all those black folks subject to Jim Crow laws – they had “free will” just like white folks and they just screwed up?

        • Larry, I am not arguing for unfair application of the law. If a jurisdiction arrests black kids for possession of marijuana, it needs to arrest white, Hispanic and Asian kids for the same offense. If black kids get 30 days for possession of a larger amount of Weed, so should every other kid.

          But we all have free will to make choices. And the idea that, somehow, African Americans cannot and need to be treated differently just doesn’t ring true. That’s making them perpetual victims and denies them the respect they deserve as fellow humans.

          I always thought the most disrespectful thing that occurred with respect to Obama was not the crazy birther argument but the European decision to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he had a fair chance to be president and establish his own legacy, good, bad or indifferent. That decision was incredibly demeaning. Obama deserved to be treated the same as any president on the world stage. But then again, my ancestors decided a long time ago that they no longer wanted to be Europeans. And for that, I’m ever grateful.

          • I agree with you on the free will point. Clarence Thomas didn’t live in a house with indoor plumbing until he was 7 years old. The first language he spoke was gullah. Somehow, he went on to be a Supreme Court justice instead of a criminal.

            Despite my support for marijuana law reform I do not believe that the police unfairly target African – Americans for the enforcement of those laws. Rather, the police tend to have many more more patrols in high crime areas than low crime areas. The police chief and top brass are evaluated based on the crime rate so patrolling in low crime areas would be contrary to their reward system. Patrolling in high crime rate areas often means areas with a disproportionate percentage of African-Americans. So, African-Americans get stopped more often because there are more police patrols. However, an officer’s claim to “smell marijuana” after a stop opens the door to a search. Since the police are rewarded for reducing the crime rate searching a car is a bit of a bonanza. Is there a gun? Are there burglary tools? I have often wondered whether police “smell marijuana” at the same rate for pull overs of white youths in low crime areas as black youths in high crime areas. My guess is that the rate of “smelling marijuana” is higher for African-Americans in high crime areas. Once a car search happens the police are reasonably likely to find grass. Since there are more patrols, traffic stops and searches in predominately black high crime areas there are proportionally more arrests of blacks for marijuana possession.

            The solution is challenging. If the police patrol equally in low crime and high crime areas there would be howls from the left. I’d howl too. If the police stopped “smelling marijuana” so often they would search fewer cars and find fewer guns, etc. The crime rate would go up. Again, howls from the left and from me.

            Two answers emerge. The first is to legalize of decriminalize marijuana possession. We’ve discussed that a lot here lately. The other is to report the number of times that cars are searched based on an officer “smelling marijuana” by neighborhood where no marijuana was found in the car. That would at least require the police to pretend to smell marijuana and search cars in more affluent neighborhoods as well as high crime neighborhoods. That would make the left happy until their kids had their cars searched.

            At the end of the day, decriminalization at least makes the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against African – Americans less painful.

  4. Jim- please provide some evidence for your claim.

  5. re: ” There is ample evidence that minorities were discriminated against by police long before the social justice movement brought it to national attention. ”

    Yep…. but that’s all “before” now – and past history – right?

    At least that’s the narrative we do get from folks like Jim.

    What happened during Jim Crow was “regrettable” but that’s all behind us now – and these folks just seem bound and determined to be criminals, eh?

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