I have written many times about the hyper-concentration of crime. Contrary to what Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions seem to think, crime is not spread throughout “bad” neighborhoods in the inner city. In city after city, researchers have shown that the great majority of people and places have absolutely no involvement in criminal activity. Most crime occurs at a tiny number of micro-places scattered throughout town. Unless a community changes these places, “hot spots” tend to stay hot year after year. Researchers are beginning to understand that the challenge for any community is not to make a few more arrests, but to alter the conditions that make a particular spot criminogenic—to change places.
Scholars call this emerging field “the criminology of place.” And it’s not just academic musing. Over the next several columns, I plan to describe a new and innovative, community-led, place-based approach to crime prevention taking place in Seattle, Washington. Building on the latest research into the concentration of crime and offenders, the Seattle initiative makes the jump from theory to practice, holding out the hope that a city can improve its neighborhoods and reduce crime even as it repairs the badly frayed relationships between the community and the police.
Initiatives like the Seattle program cannot come too soon. A rash of police shootings has exposed the raw tension between police and the urban communities they serve. Across the country, the thin veneer that barely concealed a festering rage has been scraped away, revealing an anger that will not settle for empty rhetoric and symbolic solutions. Yet so far, the demand for police reform has been more than matched by a conservative call to double-down on the very practices that have done so much damage in the first place. Prominent public officials—from President Trump and Attorney General Sessions to the talking heads on right wing media—are calling for a wholesale return to saturation policing strategies like Zero Tolerance. But these strategies, which carpet entire areas with law enforcement and target low-level quality of life offenses, are doubly flawed: they make no distinction between the troublesome few and the innocuous many, and they treat whole neighborhoods as battlegrounds. They sweep entire communities into the carceral state, inflame residents against the police, and divert precious police resources away from the crime that matters most.
The criminology of place makes strategies like these as outdated as rotary phones. Paradoxically, the key to community wellbeing and public safety is to use the police less, not more—to deploy law enforcement sparingly, and only for problems a community and city cannot solve by themselves. In future columns, I’ll describe how a community in Seattle is getting it done. This column provides a bit of background.
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The contemporary criminal justice system in the United States was built on the idea that the world is divided into good people and bad, and that the goal of the system is to separate the two as thoroughly and for as long as possible. Ronald Reagan, who did more to advance this view than any other elected official, once mused that people “are basically good,” but that some make “a conscious, willful, selfish choice” to be “evil.” For them, “retribution must be swift and sure,” because “society has the right to be protected.” Over the past 45 years, this idea—almost childish in its simplicity—has changed the entire landscape of American life.
It has changed policing. We have dramatically expanded the power of the police to monitor, stop, search, and arrest members of the community, and have pressed them to adopt policies that hobble the communities we are trying to help while enflaming the tensions we need to soothe. It has changed prosecution. We have steadily shifted power from judges to prosecutors, giving the latter increasing authority to decide the fate of those they charge with a crime. It has changed democracy. Roughly one in three adults has been arrested by age 23. The FBI calculates that law enforcement in the United States has made more than a quarter–billion arrests in the past twenty years alone, and the FBI master criminal database contains more than 77 million names. By the start of President Obama’s second term, an estimated 70 million adults had a criminal record. Two million men and women are in prison or jail; nearly seven million are under some form of custodial supervision. Nearly six million people in this country, including 1 in 13 black adults, cannot vote because of a prior conviction.
And it has changed civic life. Often an arrest alone is enough to produce catastrophic consequences, even if no charges are filed or they are eventually dismissed. Arrests can trigger automatic notification procedures, leading to suspensions from work or eviction from housing. Arrests can also lead to compounding fines and fees that quickly become unmanageable, ending in a warrant and a new arrest. A conviction, meanwhile, can be an economic death sentence. Millions of Americans suffer from one or more of the thousands of disabilities imposed as a result of prior involvement with the criminal justice system. They cannot serve on a jury, get a loan to open a small business or attend college, live in public housing, serve in the military, join certain trades or professions, or travel in some parts of the community.
Worst of all, it has changed us, for this simplistic view of the world combines with and reinforces deep-seated stereotypes about minorities and the poor, whose over-representation within the criminal justice system is taken not as evidence that the system is bedeviled by structural flaws, but as proof that these two groups include a disproportionate number of the “evil” people from whom the rest of us must be protected. The system thus acts as a powerful wedge, driving society apart along the fault lines of class and race. As these cleavages deepen and harden, the idea on which the system is built becomes more firmly embedded in public life: the world can be neatly and sensibly grouped into good and evil, and we need the criminal justice system to separate one from the other.
Yet there are signs that the criminal justice system may itself be changing. Scholars have long known that most crime is committed by a small number of offenders, and recent research shows that violent crime in particular is even more tightly concentrated than we thought. In Boston, for instance, from 1980-2008, three-quarters of the gun assault incidents and half the homicides were committed by fewer than one percent of the city’s youth (aged 15–24), most of whom were chronic offenders.
Likewise, every cop who has ever walked a beat can tell you that some places are worse than others when it comes to crime. Once again, recent research has shown that the connection between crime and place is even stronger than we suspected. Studies in Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, Cincinnati, Tel Aviv, Sacramento, and New York, as well as several smaller cities, all reveal the same pattern: Roughly half the crime in a city takes place at only four percent of the street segments; a quarter occurs at about 1.5 percent of the segments. In every city, the great majority of places are entirely crime free. And these troublesome spots are small—a street segment is the area on either side of a street between two street corners.
These micro-places are scattered throughout any given city. The distribution is not quite random, but it’s certainly not confined to areas that many people casually dismiss as “the bad neighborhoods.” What’s more, researchers have confirmed what good cops have long known: arrests alone will rarely make a bad spot better. Arrests may solve the immediate problem, but if the spot stays hot, new actors will simply rise to replace the old ones. Without interventions that change the place, the same locations stay “hot” year after year. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when authorities cool a hot spot by altering the conditions that make it criminogenic—by changing places—crime does not simply jump across the street or wander down the block. Rather than observe a displacement of crime, communities tend to see a diffusion of benefits. Areas nearby get better, showing fewer signs of decay.
These insights force us to see crime as a set of relatively isolated problems caused by a small group of people at a tiny number of locations. A city that internalizes this perspective comes to view its residents in an entirely different way. When the police think of crime as widespread throughout a particular neighborhood, it becomes nigh on impossible for them to view the people who live and work in that area with anything other than suspicion. But if they think of crime as confined to a small number of people and concentrated at an even smaller number of places spread throughout a city, it becomes much easier to view nearly all residents of the city as simply that—people trying to get on with their lives, fundamentally no different from the officers who patrol the area. The difference between the two visions could not be more foundational.
But concentrating on a tiny number of micro-places—what law enforcement calls, “hot spot policing”—is only the first step in the criminology of place It’s not just where the police go that matters, but what they do when they get there. Sometimes, the best solution to a particular place might not involve an arrest, as when low-level drug dealers have begun to operate out of a neighborhood corner market. It might be much more important to the community to reclaim the market than to lock up a few more petty dealers, particularly given the well-documented effects of over-criminalization and mass incarceration on communities of color. Because most crime occurs at only a handful of places, the police (and those who study policing) are beginning to look beyond arrests to ask, “What is it about this place that makes it different from others, and how do I change it in a way that provides the greatest benefit to the community?”
In answering these questions, a city and community begin to view crime as part of a larger problem that needs a much more comprehensive solution than the criminal justice system can ever supply on its own. They start to think of crime as a set of puzzles to be solved collaboratively by deploying an array of possible solutions, rather than one problem to be solved by deploying a single solution—police—across a wide area. In that way, a city and community learn to concentrate creatively on the small number of people and places that contribute disproportionately to crime and have such an outsize effect on the quality of life.
Crime prevention becomes focused yet comprehensive—focused on a miniscule number of worrisome people and places but drawing comprehensively on a much wider set of tools. Vastly fewer people are arrested for low-level offenses, which leads to many fewer prosecutions and criminal citations. The community experiences an immediate increase in both its net wealth and its civic wellbeing, as people no longer have to expend precious financial and emotional resources attending to a matter that never should have started—the work lost to court appearances, the continuing cycle of fines and fees, the inevitable warrant that leads to a new arrest, and so on.
The community welcomes the reallocation of official services, while the police and community begin to see themselves as allies rather than adversaries. Both developments help restore the trust destroyed by years of over-policing. And as the police footprint shrinks and responsibility for crime prevention shifts from the police alone to a robust city-community partnership, we ease the inevitable friction between police and the communities they serve. Along the way, society takes an important first step in reversing the seemingly inexorable march of the carceral state, which may be the most important benefit of all.
And one community is making it happen.
Editor’s Note: Professor Margulies will be writing a follow-up column discussing how to put this theory of criminal justice reform into practice.