When Donna Ladd goes deep on an investigative story, I tend to hear about it. Her cover story this week, with Arielle Dreher's help, is part of a great deal of reporting she is now doing that will extend over a few different outlets—the Jackson Free Press locally and a national media outlet, for starters, along with a crime-reporting fellowship project that takes her back to New York in the next few weeks.
What she is focused on is what she is always focused on in one way or another: the nexus of policing, young people, evidence-based policy and race in the U.S.
I've followed her work over a few decades now—and been privy so some of what she hasn't yet published, or the more raw forms of ideas she has synthesized—and it is worth saying that there are some powerful patterns that emerge. The fundamental one is this: You can't legislate away problems that actually require harder work on the part of the community.
For too long now we've had powerful voices in the political realm telling us how much we need to hate government and how government is never the answer. The truth is, a lot of politicians love us being disengaged from our communities' problems—or our city's, state's and nation's—because then the politicians and lobbyists can decide for themselves how to divvy things up.
The more hands-off we are, the more we can find other people to blame for society's ills; the more we make selfishness a virtue, the less we actually act in our self-interest by being engaged civically and using our collective talents, intelligence and hard work to solve problems.
If a "gang bill" focuses primarily on making it easier to classify a person as a gang member—and then makes the penalties for falling into that classification more onerous—is it really solving any problems? It's certainly not keeping people out of gangs; it is putting more people in them. It is finding ways to pin criminal charges, jail time and criminal records on people for "conspiracy" to commit crimes that they didn't necessary actually commit.
As much as "gang bill" authors are trying to tell you that it's designed to keep kids out of gangs, no part of the system is really designed for that. By over-criminalizing poverty and addiction, you get young people (often young men) interacting with the criminal-justice system early and often.
Once that starts, three things happen—they get into situations (juvenile halls, jails and prisons) where they learn more about how to be a criminal; they get involved in and organized by the gangs that run those institutions; and their other opportunities begin to be dramatically curtailed. Once you've got a record, it's harder to get housing, to get a job, to get services.
Smart people study these things, and solutions exist. We just don't implement them—certainly not in a place like Mississippi, and certainly not for everyone. Why? Because it takes a different type of thinking, and it takes effort, and we have, for some reason, decided that it's our civic responsibility to rail against the institutions that we could be using to help make our country a better place to live and work.
An organization I'm involved in, Dialogue Jackson, has worked with another group—the People's Institute out of New Orleans—to offer a training called "Undoing Racism." In that training, one of the critical components is a systems analysis of the "gatekeeper" institutions that tend to manage the periphery of impoverished and challenged communities.
What you find through that process is that the institutions that many of us rely on to make our lives better—police, hospitals, banks, government offices, nonprofits—often almost universally seem to be focused on making poor or addicted people either worse off, or feel worse about themselves.
Blue lights flashing on my block feel like a "good thing" to me because it's my belief that those police officers are responding on my behalf. But on other blocks all around Jackson, seeing the lights doesn't ignite that same feeling in many residents' chests; all too often, those blue lights feel like an institution that is designed to make their lives worse because trust isn't there.
You may think "don't do bad things, and you won't have to worry about the cops." Then some genius writes a "gang bill" where you go to jail if your buddy does a bad thing. Now whose system is it?
A full archive of the JFP's "Preventing Violence" series, supported by grants from the Solutions Journalism Network. Photo of Zeakyy Harrington by Imani Khayyam.
Solutions include better approaches to policing. Law enforcement cannot do "community policing" from inside your car. You've got to get out on the beat and get to know the neighborhood, and build alliances with the good folks, so they'll tell you what the bad folks are up to. It's not easy, and it takes resources, training, management and directives from above.
And the solution isn't all with the police—it's leadership. If the political leadership doesn't exist to demand high-quality police work, offer the training and the resources, and stop bad policing when it's identified—and tell the people it needs to be paid for—then that's a failure of leadership. But the solution also isn't all political leadership. It's the people. We've got to be more civically engaged, telling the political leaders what we really want and letting them know we're watching what they do, and that we see them when they sell out.
We need to get involved in the nonprofits or corporate sponsorships that offer better solutions to poverty and addiction, and recognize that criminalizing those things pretty much helps nobody.
And then, as a community and a culture, we must prioritize opportunity. Let's find the real gaps in the system and fill them. Let's invest in people—kids, preteens, teens and young adults. Let's make it a little part of everything we do to make our community a better place to live for everyone with shared resources, infrastructure, education. Help people get training. Get people jobs and dignity and home loans and hope.
Selfishness is not a virtue, and it works against the actual economic principle of self-interest. If you want a functioning democracy, you have got to take the reigns yourself, and both work on and demand solutions to problems, including crime.