Tim Burgess: Less is more in punishing crime

City Councilmember Burgess's aggressive panhandling ordinance has drawn lots of stones. He says the plan can work as part of larger efforts to re-establish community norms, reduce the emphasis on punishment, provide better services, and target those whose behavior is a real problem.
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Tim Burgess failed the progressive litmus test.

City Councilmember Burgess's aggressive panhandling ordinance has drawn lots of stones. He says the plan can work as part of larger efforts to re-establish community norms, reduce the emphasis on punishment, provide better services, and target those whose behavior is a real problem.

What if we could have less punishment and less crime in Seattle?

What if we could lower America's prison population — the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world — by one-half?

What if simple changes to policing and the administration of justice could lead to huge decreases in crime and, at the same time, fewer people being sent to prison?

A win-win for all of us.

I've spent the past couple of years as a Seattle City Council member listening to citizens complain about crime and street disorder. I get singled out to receive these complaints because I chair the council's public safety committee:

Why don'ꀙt the police spend more time in my neighborhood? Too many home break-ins have occurred on my block. Unsavory people sell drugs in front of my shop in broad daylight. Panhandlers chase away my customers. There's too much litter and graffiti. Why can't you stop the car break-ins?

Those complaints come from all corners of our city.

I also spent eight years in the 1970s as a Seattle police officer and detective, working the streets, helping to keep people safe, investigating crime, chasing down offenders. That's when crime rates soared and as a nation we perfected the art of incarceration.

Today, we still mete out harsh punishment — one out of every 100 adults in the U.S. is imprisoned. Our rate of imprisonment is higher than that of China, Russia, or the worst dictatorships and oppressive regimes on earth. By and large, our response to crime today is a continuation of the so-called "war on crime" crackdown launched 40 years ago.

While crime rates are down (some argue because of our rate of imprisonment) we continue to be burdened by intractable crime problems and the public and social costs of jails and prisons. Here in Seattle, crime rates dropped to the lowest levels in nearly 40 years before troubling increases in 2008 and 2009.

Last year's statistics for downtown, stretching from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square, are particularly concerning. In these areas, serious crime rose a staggering 22 percent above the rate experienced in 2008.

Crime, and our response to it, is expensive. Local jurisdictions pay big bucks for law enforcement and local and state governments shoulder heavy costs maintaining penal institutions. Victims suffer. Visitors, residents, and shopkeepers are afraid in our neighborhoods and on our sidewalks.

Further, our decades-long embrace of severe penalties has caused immeasurable harm to families and communities whose children have been caught up in the criminal justice system.

Could we achieve more with less? Could changes in law enforcement and criminal justice practices lessen sanctions and help lower rates of illegal behavior? While the concept doesn'ꀙt make intuitive sense, some — including Professor Mark Kleiman of UCLA and David Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice — think this bold idea just might work.

The goal of having less punishment and less crime promises tremendous benefits: safer neighborhoods, lower criminal justice costs, redeemed lives, and restored hope, particularly among communities of color that have lost a hugely disproportionate number of their sons to prison.

We can start taking steps toward less crime and less punishment today. Here are three strategies proposed by Kleiman and Kennedy to get us started.

First, our police should fully embrace concentrated deterrence, a strategy that focuses on the few individuals who commit the vast majority of crimes. Seattle did this successfully beginning in 2005 when police targeted the most active auto theft suspects. Reported vehicle thefts plunged 66 percent over the next four years and they continue to fall. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is now applying this principle to perpetrators of residential burglaries. Other criminal behaviors may lend themselves to concentrated deterrence, including robbery, high-level narcotics trafficking, and domestic violence.

Since criminal offenders have little regard for boundaries between cities, we should apply concentrated deterrence strategies throughout the region.

Aiming higher up the economic profiteering ladder makes sense, too. We've seen good results when focusing on criminal enterprises, such as the joint focus by Seattle and King County on street gangs engaged in the prostitution of young girls, some as young as 12, and Seattle'ꀙs efforts to reduce residential burglary by going after the pawnshops who fence stolen property.

Concentrated deterrence builds stronger police-community ties and positions officers as caring helpers, not heavy-handed occupiers. Police spend their time going after the individuals everyone in the neighborhood knows are the bad guys. By focusing on the few who do the most damage, we get a better return on investment with our public dollars.

Second, the police should help neighborhoods re-assert their norms against violence and disorder. This happened last August when Seattle police partnered with residents along 23rd Avenue in the Central District, identified the open-air drug traffickers who had brought the neighborhood to its knees, and offered offenders a choice: prosecution or social services. Kennedy calls this a "socially sanctioned threat." Many accepted the offers of help, but — perhaps more importantly — a unified community demanded an end to the drug trafficking and took back their streets and sidewalks.

Reasserting community norms has another positive outcome, too. It brings the police and neighbors together around a common goal; in Seattle last August it was the shared desire to eliminate the open-air drug market. A neighborhood that identifies its commonly shared norms of behavior, then partners with police to promote those norms achieves a greater sense of community. Police who listen to and support community expectations find a much greater willingness to cooperate with law enforcement to solve serious crime problems.

Third, certain and swift sanctions are more effective than severe punishment. Except for violent offenders, there is growing evidence that community-based, immediate sanctions work better than long prison sentences.

An excellent model is Hawaii'ꀙs Opportunity Probation with Enforcement. Probation violations have dropped dramatically because expectations are made clear, consequences are consistent when violations do occur and probationers who comply with court terms receive help and support. The H.O.P.E. project is a smart response to repeated criminal behavior, leads to restorative justice and less prison time. (Read an excellent summary of the H.O.P.E program in this New York Times article by Jeffrey Rosen.)

As the H.O.P.E program has found, we will also get better results by ensuring our law enforcement and criminal justice systems deliver needed services to offenders who respond to "socially sanctioned threats" while disciplining — with certainty and speed rather than severity — those who don't.

Concentrated deterrence, reasserting community norms, and quick and certain sanctions work. These three strategies reduce crime and our prison populations and enable police and communities to leave behind the suspicion and fear of decades past, building respectful, healthy ties.

These strategies also form the foundation of the five-point plan I have proposed to counter crime and disorder in our neighborhoods:

  1. Increasing police foot patrols.
  2. Adhering to our five-year police hiring plan.
  3. Making aggressive and intimidating solicitation a civil offense.
  4. Enhancing efforts to connect those in need with appropriate social services.
  5. Emphasizing 'ꀜhousing first'ꀝ efforts with wraparound services for chronically homeless persons.

Increasing police foot patrols and adhering to our five-year police hiring plan allows the Seattle Police Department to practice concentrated deterrence strategies, and, together with implementation of the Neighborhood Policing Plan, will allow officers to be moved where and when needed most and free up as much as 30 percent of officers' daily shifts to proactive, problem-solving policing.

The proposed aggressive solicitation ordinance is an application of two strategies — both concentrated deterrence and the reassertion of community norms. The ordinance will allow police to focus on those few individuals who through intimidation while soliciting cause fear and a compulsion to fork over money. The ordinance resets norms for patterns of behavior on our streets: panhandling is okay so long as it does not involve intimidation.

Enhanced and better coordinated street outreach so those in need can be identified and steered into appropriate services and more "housing first" units for the chronically homeless are essential to both encourage and reward those who might otherwise face sanctions because of their behavior.

It's time we as a city take another look at policing and criminal justice. Maybe, just maybe, we can have less punishment and less crime, as well as a healthier community for all.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tim Burgess

Tim Burgess

Tim Burgess is a former city council member and interim mayor of Seattle.