Professor David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention & Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, talks about new approaches to addressing gang violence and open-air drug dealing.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. This month’s podcast is the second in a row to offer excerpts from a presentation given to Center for Court Innovation staff by Professor David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Kennedy spoke about his work helping develop the Boston Gun Project, Operation CeaseFire, and the Drug Market Initiative. All of these projects, to some extent, harnessed informal social control to help change offenders’ behavior. In fact, Kennedy says, mothers and neighbors and friends could do far more to influence behavior than police patrols and fear of justice system and consequences.
DAVID KENNEDY: The mothers matter more than the cops. When my own soul doesn’t guide me properly, and my mom and my friends and my girlfriend do that all that’s more important than what the cops do, they don’t have to restrict it to a level of juvenile offenses. You don’t have to wait for somebody to be arrested. The basic insights of the restorative justice are just true; you can take them and use them.
WOLF: Kennedy went on to talk about the importance of legitimacy. His point and a point he said that is also made by fellow academics, Tom Tyler and Tracy Miers, is that the more legitimacy police and the criminal justice system have, the more effective they and the law are.
KENNEDY: But the basic notion here is that even bad guys mostly obey the law. I have these conversations with people in my world who say guns have become the preferred method of dispute resolution. No, they’re not. Everybody would be dead if that were true. Even the worst guys behave pretty well most of the time, and they don’t do it because they’re afraid of the cops; they do it for all kinds of other reasons. And that the more the agents of the state are viewed as legitimate, the more effective they are. When they make mistakes, it matters less; the more power the law has. And in these communities, law enforcement has next to no legitimacy. And this is where stop snitching’s coming from. This is where the withdrawal and placing these communities is coming from. That turns out to be something that can be directly addressed. And it is driven by at least two correctible things. It is driven by actual bad and offensive police practices, which can be changed. And it is driven by out-and-out misunderstandings which can be addressed. And it turns out that in practice they can be addressed quite directly.
WOLF: Earlier in the discussion Kennedy pointed out some of the misperceptions that fuel mistrust between police and the community. At the conclusion of his remarks, however, Kennedy pointed out that the police and the community and even offenders, although they may not realize it, actually have a lot in common.
KENNEDY: At root there turns out to be broad and fundamental and important common ground here, so I began with police and communities—I will add to that now because this is the way I’ve come to think about this—offenders like the three core groups involved in all of these are law enforcement, communities and offenders. And it turns out that all three groups agree on very important things. Nobody wants anybody who doesn’t absolutely have to go to jail. Everybody agrees on that—almost. There’s a small, small departures in each of these areas. But in many places at any rate, most of all these constituencies agree on all this. And nobody wants anybody who doesn’t have to, to go to jail. Nobody wants people to get hurt. Nobody doesn’t want even seasoned bad guys to turn their lives around and succeed. The hardest bitten cop unless he’s a bit of a sociopath would rather somebody get a job than go to federal prison. They may not believe that that’s possible. But if they’re faced with a choice, that’s the way they feel about it. Everybody it turns out—and this is hard to articulate for many people, but it is, in fact, true—everybody would prefer that any remaining criminality be non-violent and non-intrusive. So nobody really thinks that we’re going to get rid of all misbehavior. And if you have a choice between misbehavior at a certain level, accompanied by high levels of public chaos and gun violence, and that same misbehavior, absent the public chaos and gun violence, most people are willing to say that B is better than A. And that’s a lot of what’s happened in New York.
I got in enormous trouble at the National Network Conference in December by standing in front of the room at a plenary presentation and saying “I have been in friends’ apartments in Manhattan when the weed guy came by.” And I thought he was another guest; he wasn’t. He was somebody very, very neatly dressed with a beautiful silver Halliburton briefcase. And when he opened it on my friend’s kitchen counter, it was full of beautifully packaged, very expensive weed. So there’s lots of dope in New York still. There’s very little public drug dealing south of about 160th Street and outside East New York and Brownsville. That’s a good thing. And it’s very, very hard for especially people in law enforcement to take this as anything but surrender or an implicit dirty deal or something like that. It doesn’t have to be any of those things. There are lots and lots of and lots of places in which there is rampant criminality and the communities fundamentally safe. And a lot of the reason that’s true is because serious bad guys aren’t stupid enough to do drive-bys over their girlfriend’s new boyfriend because it’s bad for business and it brings heat. And this is a conversation you can have with chaotic thugs. You can say do you think the Mafia behaves like this? No, they don’t. They don’t do it because they’re good people; they do it because they know it’s stupid. If you’re going to be a thug, be a smart thug. And they get it, right? And you can have that conversation without surrendering. It’s not a dirty deal; it’s just true. And you can, in fact, say to the—everybody’s playing both ends against the middle on this. Everyone in the community says there’s just as much dope in the suburbs as here, but you guys are racists because you’re only kicking their doors in. The true answer is nobody’s getting killed in the suburbs; and that’s true. So if we can create suburban conditions here, that would be just fine. And everybody thinks that, in fact, it’s not just fine, but it’s better than where we are.
And at root it turns out that everybody’s miserable right now. We may not know it because we’re so used to it. But the cops are miserable; the prosecutors are miserable; the judges are miserable; and probation officers are miserable. The thugs are getting killed and hurt and nobody’s getting rich. The people in the community are scared and intruded upon. Nobody’s having a good time. And it turns out that you can recognize that; you can say it out loud; and you can go through what is in fact a reconciliation in truth-telling process that says all of these things are true; here’s the way it’s really working. Nobody likes it. Can we agree on the following? Can we agree that the small, hard core that’s driving the worst stuff should be identified, should be spoken to, should be put on notice about what further misbehavior will bring, that we should avoid to the extent humanly possible leading with enforcement and actually we should try to keep them out of prison, we should help them if they’ll take it, and that they should hear from people they respect that they are loved and valued but that certain aspects of their behavior are wrong and need to stop. You say that to people and virtually nobody says, “Well, actually, I like it better the way we’re doing it right now.” And then you can do this stuff and things change.
WOLF: That was David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice sharing some of what he’s learned through his decades of experience innovating new approaches to gang violence and open-air drug dealing. He was speaking during a presentation to staff at the Center for Court Innovation. You can hear more excerpts from his presentation by listening to last month’s New Thinking podcast. To learn more about the Center for Court Innovation, visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. I’m Rob Wolf. Thanks for listening.