Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010
Does It Really Work?
A Critique of Fear-Based Crime Preventionby Jim S. Vrettos
The mass media are buzzing about the "fresh twists" that contemporary criminologists are putting on their field's classical deterrence paradigm. Both conservatives and liberals are finding reasons to praise CUNY professor David Kennedy, the patron saint of the new thinking about deterrence, for creating a new approach to crime that stresses individual choice and moral accountability without relying on draconian prison sentences.
Kennedy's operational framework is disarmingly simple: offenders are told to stop their misbehavior and, if they don't, they and everyone in their gang will feel the consequences (the stick). In other words, a gang member commits a crime and all members of the gang will face charges. Variations on this model are constructed to fit whatever group the offending individual is involved in. The social service part (the carrot) is then put into possible play as genuine offers of help are presented to change lives, but only if the offenders accept the terms of the possible consequences.
It's clearly important to counter the trend of mass incarceration in this country. But the criminal justice models being proposed by Kennedy and his colleagues are hardly the panacea they're being made out to be.
The problem? These interventions, like previous interventions grounded in classical criminology, still offer a narrow, fear-based, one-dimensional view of life that rules out the incredible complexity of human interaction and the awe and wonder of the human mind as it relates to the mysteries and vagaries of people trying to transform, change, and become "better" people or those who are struggling to see the world through different eyes. Spiritual progressives, secular humanists, liberal reformers, curious intellectuals, and the mass public should all take a critical second look before embracing this latest twist on criminology. One way to develop a critical perspective on these new developments is to take a closer look at the historical premises and aims of the criminological tradition on which contemporary scholars are building.
European and American sociology and criminology have been mesmerized since their inception by the possibility of uncovering the ultimate scientific explanation for crime and "deviance" (behaviors that violate cultural norms). Following in the footsteps of their older and more respected big brothers—the biologists, physicists, and chemists who were uncovering the natural laws of the natural universe—the founders of sociology dreamt of doing the same for the social universe: finding that one all-encompassing law, pattern, variable, or cause that would account for and explain all crime and deviance.
Following the scientific method and trying to be as rational, logical, and objective as possible, these largely inductive thinkers went out into the world to collect data that would empirically lead to the social truths waiting to be found and mined by the right person using the "right" scientific research methods and statistics. It was important to them to remain naturalistic—they were committed to keeping their beliefs (if any) in God or religion private and argued that one should not bring God or some other supernatural being into an explanation of what was causing events in the social world.
They believed that this secular humanist, scientific approach would result in obvious prescriptions for programs and policies that politicians, policy makers, and the general public would see as logical and happily institute, satisfactorily "solving" the problem of crime.
Contemporary American criminologists have continued to champion and add to classical criminology—an eighteenth-century philosophy that attempts to understand crime in terms of rational action and to base the administration of criminal justice on the rational, deterrent power of punishment. Originally conceived as a humane alternative to arbitrary and unjustly severe sentencing and punishment of offenders, this approach was an attempt to achieve administrative uniformity; a scale of punishments proportionate to the objective harm caused by the offense; and support for the idea that the aim of punishment is deterrence, not retribution. According to this worldview, the rational individual enters into a social contract and by breaking it (the laws of society) is demonstrating his or her free will and rational choice. This must be met by appropriate punishment on behalf of society, in order to deter others. Criminology posits that people are most likely to obey the law when they're subject to punishments perceived as legitimate, fair, and consistent.
The mass media typically promotes attempts by criminology's contemporary "pioneers," presenting their innovative, attention-grabbing, anti-crime programs as if they actually held answers to the problem of crime. Whether in the New Yorker's "Don't Shoot: A Radical Approach to Gang Violence" (June 22, 2009), the Guardian's "Crime and Group Punishment" (July 29, 2009), the New York Times Sunday Magazine's "Prisoners of Parole" (January 10, 2010), or Newsweek's "The Battle of the Anti-violence Gurus" (January 6, 2010) and "Always on My Mind" (February 9, 2009)—where professor Kennedy is pictured prominently with dark sunglasses and shoulder length hair as he walks calmly past a graffiti-laden wall of gang scrawls and symbols—the subliminal and not so subtle message is that the answer to our crime and criminal justice problems is here and walking among us. From reducing gang violence to lowering homicide rates, from fighting terrorism to shutting down open-air drug markets or becoming a model for national parole reform, the criminologists' approach is portrayed as a cure-all that will be embraced by all those who rationally look at the data.
As the New York Times piece explains, these scholars have added a fresh twist to the classical criminology paradigm in their attempts to establish the legitimacy of the criminal justice system in the eyes of those who have run afoul of it or are likely to. Kennedy (an anthropology professor at CUNY's John Jay College) describes his breakthrough moment and major innovation as focusing on increasing the legitimacy of law enforcement in the eyes of the group—a departure from the classical deterrence theorists' focus on threatening individuals. He enlisted what he calls the "community's moral voice" and set out to deter the most dangerous young gang members by persuading their friends and neighbors to pressure them into obeying the law.
Even if the approach that Kennedy and others are proposing has underlying roots that are not inherently humanistic or moral, it does provide a kind of "less suffering" approach to criminal justice that has been played out in some significant reductions of crime and violence. The paradigm seems to be working, and even the many liberals and progressives who are not naturally attracted to it are hard-pressed to know what to make of it.
The problem, however, is that the "new" deterrence paradigm is still rooted in a "get them before they get us" plan of never-ending fearful vigilance, counter-attacks, and threats of preventive and preemptive force. This is the true depressing destructiveness of the paradigm. Even if for a brief historical moment some measure of "success" (such as lower rates of gang delinquency) is achieved, force or the threat of force is ultimately seen as the vehicle to carry the day. To let up or trust in any other design risks all-out destruction. Bleak as this never-ending war of vigilance is, by this paradigm it's all that we have to stem off universal disorder and chaos, increased levels of crime, terrorism, and other forms of social deviance. It closes off other possible models and worldviews that are dismissed as dangerously unrealistic and naive.
When questioned by a staff member about the de-emphasis of the social services (carrot) piece of his program, Kennedy remarked, "Look, we would all like to save everyone, but we can't. We don't know how to do that yet, and Ceasefire (the program) is fundamentally about what can be done. It's engineering, not evangelism." The staff member was dismissed from the team.
The cynical realism of this model should be a rallying cry for spiritual progressives and people of good will from all walks of life to fight back and push for a life-affirming movement based as much as possible on self-determination, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and spiritual meaning. Kennedy's insight about the community's moral voice is certainly not a new one in American social science and could be used much differently as the basis of a spiritual progressive retort to his model.
The Peer-Support Alternative Model
Spontaneous self-help healing groups based on spiritual progressive values offer the possibility of a trans-valuation of the individual and the world. They incorporate a deep respect for the complexity of humanity and the possibilities of lasting and more permanent transformations, which can break the never-ending cycle of violence while offering the vehicles through which a new world of trust and love can flourish. The Kennedy model is simply not constructed to accomplish this. At best, it's set up to try to control or deter a never-ending struggle of good versus evil. At worst, this struggle becomes a continuous life and death struggle that can end up in mass destruction and human misery.
In the spiritually progressive scenario, the damaged, abused, exploited, or victimized individual turns to a new or substitute primary group (one in which they have intimate face-to-face daily contact). The other members of the group who have also experienced a similar pattern of hurt, frustration, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc., develop a bond that enables them to build support to get them through immediate tough moments in their daily life. An older, more experienced member of this new primary group can act as a guide, and if a younger member reaches out for help, he or she has a ready role model as living proof of the possibility of a better life. Older members see younger members and relive what it was like to feel what they are now going through. This powerful interaction acts to further strengthen older members' resolve to maintain the "new life" they are achieving and reinforces that changed frame of reference so that they can help others (and themselves) see the world through a whole new set of eyes.
In this fascinating and complex human interaction, individuals and groups who have been severely damaged or negatively labeled can help and heal each other in ways that no other model has been shown to do. The community's moral voice can operate at a level of human awareness and spirituality that can lead to a safer, more peaceful world based on a communalism that reaches out to our deepest social needs of belonging and interacting without resorting to the authoritarian and moral superiority streaks of the deterrence model.
The civil rights, women's, peace, and environmental movements, as well as many, many others around the world, have all made extensive use of the healing power of this model:
- The Fortune Society in New York, since 1967, has been "Building People—Not Prisons" and providing emergency and phased-permanent housing with supportive services to homeless ex-prisoners in addition to court advocacy, education, counseling, family services, and treatment services, all with a peer support model that has gained the trust and respect of thousands of ex-convicts.
- The Brooklyn Mental Health Court serves as a "problem-solving" juvenile justice alternative court focusing on the treatment needs of defendants rather than on punishment as deterrence.
- The Adolescent Portable Therapy program founded in 2002 by the Vera Institute of Justice has played a major role in setting up the efforts of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court. Ramon Solhkhah, MD, a psychiatrist at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, has been a prime advocate for the Vera Institute program. The portable therapy program focuses heavily on the need to combine traditional cognitive behavioral and family therapy techniques, which are delivered in a portable fashion. These services are to be given at home, in jail, or wherever the teen may be located, and are designed to engage, include, motivate, and gain family support for teens throughout the treatment and healing process.
- Eben Bronfman, the longtime special assistant to Manhattan District Attorney Morgenthau, has been working for decades to implement an "Alternatives to Arrest" program in New York. Heavily based on the community's input and individual personalization, the program allows for a high degree of family and peer support, which is crucial for the program's success. The concept of Community Policing from which this program evolved (and which is widely practiced in a variety of stressed communities across the country) is at its core dedicated to the close partnership of that community and their police, who mobilize together to heal, repair, and create an environment of less social disorganization through, in part, community empowerment and the recognition of the community's needs and desires.
- Marie Volpe, director of the Dispute Resolution Center at John Jay College, has patterned her program along themes of healing in restorative justice and the history of various International Truth and Reconciliation Panels. Volpe argues that people are not taught how to anticipate, analyze, engage, or manage conflicts constructively. "The consequences can range from minor miscommunication to severe and costly outbreaks of violence and loss of lives," she says. "Our jails and prisons are full of individuals convicted of crimes that result from a systemic, benign neglect of the value placed on paying attention to what it takes to make talk work at all stages from proactive measures to response efforts." The New York Police Department's Hostage Negotiation Team and hundreds of other groups avail themselves of the program's expertise.
The fear-based, "cynical realistic" deterrence worldview that has dominated recent criminal justice and re-entry policy is not set up to bring a safer or more lasting peaceful world. That paradigm is based on a paternalistic sense of perceived moral superiority that creates and perpetuates a dependent, scapegoat population and a never-ending cycle of fear, mistrust, and cynicism. At best, this model leads to an uneasy and temporary cold peace that some label a success. History teaches us differently. The cold peace usually takes another form—often a more destructive one than the form that was supposedly regulated, controlled, and deterred. Spiritual progressives and their insights need to be involved in these already existing worldwide movements to help spread an alternative vision and paradigm that is truly humane, nonexploitive, and based on caring. It's time for a paradigm of healing grounded in a spiritual toughness in the civil rights tradition. Otherwise, we're left with just another quick fix.
James S. Vrettos has taught sociology, criminology, and criminal justice at the City University of New York for twenty years. He coauthored the critically acclaimed text The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason and has facilitated New York City's Tikkun Community organizing group.
Vrettos, James S. 2010. Does It Really Work? A Critique of Fear-Based Crime Prevention. Tikkun 25(3): 31