I’ll never forget the morning some 20 years ago when I woke to see my colleague Paul McLaughlin on the cover of the Boston Globe beneath the banner headline announcing he had been ambushed and shot to death.
He was a prosecutor. He was committed to restoring order in the city in the mid 90s when urban gang violence was tearing apart urban neighborhoods. And he was an extraordinarily decent, widely-admired and well-loved person.
The gang violence has diminished, but it continues today. The gang violence doesn’t always make the front page, but young black men between 15 and 35 are still getting murdered in Massachusetts at a rate that is over 14-fold greater than the rate among young white men in the same age bracket. In most cases, where the assailant is known, it is another young man of color.
While incarceration has started to drop overall, the population of lifers in Massachusetts — mostly convicted of murder — has trended stubbornly upward, increasing 8 fold from 1973 to 2015.
A few weeks ago, I spent an hour chatting with a couple of long-time African-American police officers who live in and patrol in the Mattapan area. They talked of their efforts to steer troubled young men off the streets and into youth development programs.
The officers complained that even the good residential youth programs often leave kids with too much free time. They told a story of a young man who was staying at a residential facility where he was forced to check out for the day early in the morning. He called a friend to pick him up. The friend took advantage of the occasion and arranged to rob someone in a drug transaction behind the facility. The young man trying to be on the right path got shot.
When I furrowed my brow and wanted to make sure I understood correctly that the intended robbery victim had a gun, one of the officers furrowed her brow and smiled back, “Everybody has a gun — it’s so easy to go south and load up on weapons where the rules are loose.”
Jill Loevy wrote Ghettoside after spending years as a reporter embedded in the homicide unit in South Los Angeles. She takes her reader deep into the texture of urban violence and one comes to understand the connection between current violence levels and the historic neglect by law enforcement of violence in African-American communities.
In any setting where there is a diminished expectation of intervention by law enforcement, a fraction of the young men feel that they have to defend their honor by carrying guns and proving their willingness to retaliate lethally when disrespected. JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy documents the same behaviors among whites in Appalachia.
Paul McLaughlin’s mission was and remains a sacred one — to bring peace to communities that need it desperately. As we face up to the challenge of reducing mass incarceration and assemble a legislative package of criminal justice reforms this fall, we have to also keep in mind some of the realities that have contributed to high incarceration in poverty communities.
While we want to lift people up, not lock them up, we have to preserve and even increase accountability for violence. That doesn’t mean longer sentences. One of the saddest things I’ve seen is the collection of older prisoners out at Norfolk MCI, many of whom have long ago grown up and could live peacefully at liberty. And we need to legislatively support restorative justice and diversion for less serious cases. And, of course, we want to invest in the education and programming that can help keep young people out of trouble in the first place.
But it is unambiguously desirable for prosecutors to be able to convict murderers. Currently, in Massachusetts prosecutors cannot use wiretaps to solve murder cases. They’ve been asking us to fix that for years and I very much hope we will be able to do that as part of our criminal justice reforms this fall.