Grits is glad to see Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle reporting that the Travis DA has rebuffed demands from neighborhood groups to use a git-tuff approach on open-air drug dealing in Central East Austin near my own neighborhood. When six neighborhood groups petitioned the city to use an "enhanced prosecution" program used downtown - beefing up penalties sought for crimes committed in a certain geographic area - Grits argued the neighborhood setting was a poor fit for this tried-and-failed tactic and suggested something more like the High Point program, which as it turns out, reports Smith, was begun in part by a former Austin police official. According to Smith's johnny-on-the-spot reporting, that's precisely the approach the DA's office will take.Early in the evenin' just about supper time,
Over by the courthouse they're starting to unwind.
Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up.
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp.
Down On The Corner, out in the street,
Willy and the Poorboys are playin';
Bring a nickel; tap your feet.- John Fogerty, "Down on the Corner"
First, to tell you a little about the area we're talking about, which is perhaps a mile east of the state capitol building, here's an overview from Ms. Smith describing "The Corner," a downtrodden spot which has inexplicably earned capitalization:
The issues of crime and drugs at 12th and Chicon are not new; it is a place that criminal justice officials have long known as an open-air drug market bustling with associated crime, some of it violent. Veteran Austin Police officers and longtime residents say the culture of The Corner has been the same for nearly 40 years. Both old and new residents are tired of the crime and blight that the drug market brings with it, and they're frustrated that city and county officials have never made the kind of commitment to the neighborhood that it would take to clean up the area.She adds:
For years police have done sting and long-term undercover drug operations here; they've netted many arrests but generated no long-term change. There was the Central East Austin Weed & Seed Initiative, a federally underwritten effort to reduce crime, improve social services and other community resources, and concentrate community policing efforts, in order to maintain police visibility and strengthen the community-police partnership.Unfortunately, "enhanced prosecution" is little different from the "weed and seed" strategy:
Whether Weed & Seed had any positive effect on 12th and Chicon depends on whom you ask. There were plenty of "weeding" arrests, but not so much "seeding."
Whether enhanced prosecution (or sit-lie, for that matter) could work at 12th and Chicon is a matter of debate – and beyond that, the idea of rounding up and sending to prison every bad actor associated with that corner isn't universally appealing to neighbors or local officials. For too long, rounding people up – including many young, black males – was the only approach used at 12th and Chicon. It hasn't exactly had any lasting effect, except to brand a large number of people as felons, making it even harder for them to find a way off The Corner.This is an area that's recently become a jumbled melting pot of different ethnic and income groups. Many black families with roots here from the segregation era have moved away seeking both better schools and lately, cheaper housing. For a while, mostly Spanish-speakers took their place, but lately it's been yuppies and Bohemian types who can't afford a spot downtown. Today in my neighborhood it's not uncommon to see new two and occasionally three-story homes being constructed in narrow lots next door to small slumping shacks.
So the question facing neighbors and public officials remains: What would it take to clean up 12th and Chicon and improve the quality of life for everyone once and for all?
A big source of the current outcry, as Smith had aged neighborhood activist Scottie Ivory point out in the story, is that Central East Austin is rapidly gentrifying and the new, more upscale residents aren't willing to tolerate either drug dealing or the array of black and grey market activities that accompany it. In my own neighborhood, there's even been opposition to legal, black-owned businesses. Some newbies even want prosecution for petty code violations nobody ever thought of enforcing before. So the neighborhood is changing and folks with marginal and particularly black-market incomes will eventually be squeezed out by basic economics (led by skyrocketing property taxes and utility bills) before police and prosecutors ever solve the problem, in this writer's estimation.
The big factor I see in this neighborhood that contributes more than anything to open-air drug sales, and which regrettably is addressed by neither the neighborhood's nor the DA's approach, is a lack of focused effort to provide guidance and opportunities to children of incarcerated parents, who are the primary labor source for street-corner drug markets.
About half of the 158,000 Texas prison inmates have minor-age children, and quite often those kids drift once Daddy (or less often, Mommy) goes away and young people migrate to the few alternative, entry-level opportunities available to them that provide meaningful pay. According to TDCJ, "Without intervention, children of incarcerated parents are six to eight times more likely to become involved in a criminal lifestyle." That's such a high-risk group - both statistically and in Grits' own personal observation in this neighborhood - that if it were possible to keep greater percentages of those kids out of trouble, even just reducing the numbers at the margins, there would be a big multiplier effect regarding the amount of crime reduced.
The High Point model (see a manual [pdf] on the idea from the USDOJ) offers a modest alternative to just arresting everyone, though as DA Rosemary Lehmberg pointed out the approach doesn't preclude tough prosecution. Instead of arrest and immediate prosecution, they bring in young people to be confronted by their grandparents, their minister, and any other people in their extended circle who want to help. If that person commits to a change, they make that commitment not just to law enforcement but their own family and immediate peers. This, it turns out, works often enough to make a difference.
As it turns out, Prof. David Kennedy, who was one of the intellectual authors of the High Point model will be in Austin today and attending an invitation-only brown bag luncheon hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which I regrettably will have to miss. See Kennedy's much-remarked book describing the High Point approach.
Thankfully, it's also a model that can be replicated when crime displaces. For example, at various times there's been a smaller open-air drug market closer to my home at 14th and Cedar. Chase folks away at Chicon and I've little doubt some will just move there, and elsewhere. Black markets migrate in response to enforcement (as law enforcement along the border will attest). So long as demand exists alongside a desperate workforce, history demonstrates beyond doubt that geography will not constrain the intersection of supply and demand.
Having lived in this neighborhood 22 years, over and over I've witnessed the unintended consequences of so-called enhanced prosecution, weed-and-seed, or what have you. Frequently that solution creates new problems which aren't openly discussed or often even noticed. Those families aren't going away just because one or more child/sibling is incarcerated. That person nearly always returns, now more dependent on the family's limited resources than ever, and with few prospects. Anyone who thinks the solution is merely to maximize punishment isn't seeing the long view, particularly when we lock somebody up but ignore the kids they leave behind: the ones who will start the cycle over again.
Young people, especially children of incarcerated parents, need to see some path to a better life or at least financial survival. Slinging dope doesn't pay a lot; quite a few folks doing it at 12th and Chicon would do something else, something legal, if they could get paid for it. Drug sales and petty crime at what Smith dramatically dubbed "The Corner" - there's certainly nothing glamorous about it - are so persistent because of the desperation of those involved. And fundamentally, the solution to desperation is not punishment, but hope.