Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bring a Nickel: Max enforcement alone won't stymie open-air drug markets

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"
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.

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.

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."
Unfortunately, "enhanced prosecution" is little different from the "weed and seed" strategy:
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.

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?
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Very good and informative post; I hope I can use the info in my own community. In the smallish community where I live, the tried-and-failed "tuff on crime" sentiment still reigns supreme. It makes life easy for the police, gives them great statistics by just recycling the same offenders over and over, but obviously never any net improvement.

Anonymous said...

A Story
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t often eat what they serve at McDonald’s, but I do like their coffee. Since I found myself in the neighborhood and since I drink more than one cup a day, I often was inside one particular McDonald’s place. Last year, the owners decided to renovate the place. To complete this restoration work (which took about three months), they employed a crew of about 8-9 workers.
I realize that jobs are hard to come by for lots of African-Americans. Times are hard. I have also observed that I see very few Blacks on construction sites. At this particular job site, I noticed that Spanish was the only language spoken and that every one of these construction workers seemed to speak this as their first language. There were no Blacks gainfully employed there. If a Black person had been hired, how could he have communicated with the other workers? By the way, I suspect that those workers were in the country illegally. I didn’t ask them, of course. The point is, I suspect that what I observed at this job site prevails all across the country at hundreds of thousands of work locations. African-Americans are squeezed out of employment. The message is: don’t bother to apply, these jobs are reserved for Spanish speakers. This keeps millions of men unemployed. Why? Because they are in the country legally and because they speak English. How many people turn to drug selling and other crime because of not having a job?

ckikerintulia said...

Your assumption that the Spanish speaking workers were in the country illegally may or may not be true.

RAS said...

The ones that would take a legal job just need to move west of Abilene the oil fields are begging for workers. 10:54 The problem you mention occurs in the oilfields as well and is increasing as more Hispanics achieve supervisory postions the more it is tolerated.

Anonymous said...

If you don't speak the language, you are SOOL. Try being the only one who speaks English. It's the new dead language these days.

Anonymous said...

"is a lack of focused effort to provide guidance and opportunities to children of incarcerated parents," there any data available that tells the number of children who were actually living in the home with both parents, one parent or a parent at all while said parent(s) were out doping?

Anonymous said...

"About half of the 158,000 Texas prison inmates have minor-age children".........again I ask if there is any data available to indicate how many of these incarcerated were actually living with their children at the time of their criminal activity? How many of these incarcerated were gainfully employed at the time of their criminal activity? How many of these incarcerated were high school dropouts? What other dynamics might we think of?

Robert Langham said...

If the families don't get fixed, ain't nothing going to get fixed.

Anonymous said...

If somebody starts buying drugs at 12th and Chicon, what effect would this have on their life? If they became hooked, how much damage would it do to them and their family and their children? Ten years from now (or even thirty years) would they still be suffering from this decision? How much would addiction cost them (just in dollars) over the course of their life? All this goes on in plain sight on 12th and Chicon and people keep quite about it?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:32, if the same person began buying drugs from a dealer selling indoors from their home, would the effects on the user, their life or society be any less damaging? The focus on open-air markets is about appearances - they're (rightly) repulsed the blatancy of it.

Let's be clear: In targeting open-air markets, police aren't really aiming to reduce the AMOUNT of drug supply/demand but to push the trade indoors and out of sight, a method aimed at altering public perception but not the reality of drug crime. Overall drug demand/supply is unaffected by the tactic. It's a phantom mostly unconnected to the realities of the drug trade or for that matter public safety, for good or ill. But it's let them say they "cleaned up the streets," etc..

10:54, would you personally have the woodworking and construction skills, etc., to renovate the McDs if they were to hire you on? I wouldn't. And not many TDCJ alums reentering the workforce have those skills either (plus the Lege cut the budget for vocational training in prison). It's true that in Texas Latino immigrants, particularly Mexican migrants, illegal and otherwise, dominate the construction trades, in much the same way and for many of the same reasons the Irish are disproportionately represented among American police, particularly on the eastern seaboard (and to a lesser extent in Texas).

I don't see anyone raising the same complaint about the disproportionate number of WASPs in investment banking, the disproportionate number of Indians and Asians in engineering and medicine, etc.. Hell, seemingly every US motel I stay in anymore is run by someone of Indian descent named "Patel." Immigrants from different ethnic backgrounds migrate to job specialties because of a combination of the availability of work at the historical moment they arrive, the skills they bring with them, and access to employment through personal connections. That's what's happened in the construction trades and it's as natural (and to me, welcome) as the sunrise. Twas ever thus.

This is off topic, but screw it it's my blog: I don't know if you've ever traveled in interior Mexico much (if you decide, to, email me privately and I'll gladly suggest destinations), but high-level construction skills are much more common there. E.g., the pier and beam house I live in in Austin was built in 1923 from a kit somebody purchased from Sears and Roebuck out of a catalog and built for themselves (in the Clarksville neighborhood, before I-35 was constructed and the house was physically moved on a trailer to East Austin). I probably couldn't build a complete, functioning house from a kit if you put a gun to my head, but in interior Mexico that's still quite common. I've actually priced having a house constructed in one of my favorite Mexican towns, and a) inevitably somebody first wanted to sell me a kit, and b) I was assured that it was easy and cheap to pay someone to assemble if I couldn't (and in fact "here's my cousin's phone number, should I call him now?," etc.). I began paying attention to various shopkeepers building their own facilities, homeowners adding wings to to their houses themselves, bricklayers on seemingly average buildings who laid intricate patterns around round windows and outer facades. Our last 2-3 trips, I've made it a point to ask folks at several notable, small construction job if they owned the building or were a hired crew: About half or more were owners or their kin. And it began to dawn on me that there may be more reasons than I understood why Mexicans dominate construction trades than just that they're taking jobs from Americans, any more than black men are taking jobs from white Americans because they're disproportionately employed in the NBA.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, and 5:56, I had to look the stat up, but "Among parents in federal prisons in 2004, half (48%) had lived with their children in the month prior to their arrest," says this source (pdf). I can tell you from personal experience, though, even if the parent isn't living with them, however, that relationship is far more important than most people (certainly me, before I learned better) give it credit for.

Also, fwiw, "In 2007, there were 1,706,600 minor children with an incarcerated parent, an 82.2% increase over the 936,500 children in 1991. In 2007, one in 43 (2.3%) American children had a parent incarcerated in a state or federal prison. Approximately half of children with incarcerated parents are under ten years old; 22% of children of state inmates and 16% of children of federal inmates are under five years old."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the source Grits. I concur with Robert Langham, "if the families don't get fixed, ain't nothing going to get fixed."

Dwight Brown said...

Bunny Colvin, call your office, please.

Susan Hays said...

In the happy news department, TDCJ does have a program for the children of prisoners: started by former board chair, Christina Melton Crain whose day job is representing children in court. I don't know how well-funded, wide spread, or effective it is these days. But I do know we need more of it.

Anonymous said...

If one does not want to get the stigma of being convicted felon then one should not engage in felonious behavior. Especially in public place such as 12th and Chicon.

RAS said...

Grits' 10:54s and my point wasn't complaining about Hispanics having the construction jobs. It was about non Hispanics being excluded from those jobs by not being able to speak FOREIGN language.

Anonymous said...

You're saying that Mexicans get the jobs and Blacks get to watch NBA on TV so this is all OK?

Anonymous said...

"Down on the Corner" is a song by the American band Creedence Clearwater Revival. It appeared on their fourth studio album, Willy and the Poor Boys (1969). The song chronicles the tale of the fictional band Willy and the Poor Boys, and how they play on street corners to cheer people up and ask for nickels.

Anonymous said...

Would kids who live with parents slinging dope be less likely to sling dope? The enhanced prosecution program targets those who have a long list of felony charges on their rap sheet - how is it OK to spit them back out on the streets with a slap on the wrist? Whatever your answer, tell that to Nick Jarmon who was shot in the head slinging dope at 13th and Chicon - and tell that to his kids. If there is no serious consequence for dealing crack, people will think it's OK and continue to do it along with all the peripheral damage it causes. And their kids will likely follow in their footsteps. Instead, punish the dealer, work with the kids, and work on the underlying problems. But don't turn a blind eye or put on the kid gloves.