Homicide Ghettoside

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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41 Comments

  1. Please give us a couple of examples of reform measures.

    As an aside, I wonder why so many corruption prosecutions in Massachusetts are by the Feds rather than by the state. You know what I’m getting at. I also wonder why wiretaps for murder cases have been disallowed.

  2. As a refinement to what you are saying: Law enforcement can in fact use wiretaps to solve murder cases, provided that there is a nexus between the murder and organized crime – i.e. that there was a common criminal money-making enterprise in which the murderers were engaged. In the one murder case I know of where evidence was thrown out because there was no nexus between the murder and organized crime (Commonwealth v. Tavares), prosecutors were still able to convict Tavares of murder at retrial using other evidence. So I am not aware of any public evidence suggesting that the wiretap laws as they stand have resulted in any murderers escaping justice; though if you’re aware of any, I would welcome learning more.

  3. In an ideal world reform legislation would take account of competent, well-done research on criminal justice issues, especially on recidivism. This is not always done. It is not uncommon to run into reformers who have no idea at all about the research out there or what it says. This is not a situation you run into in other fields.

  4. What a tangled web we weave … Since the solution should involve finding mentors and aides for troubled young people, (red, white, black or purple) and the law must be responsible for and toall citizens the problems will keep recurring.

    Is it possible to create a “Big Mentor” program answering to the court where an offender who has not committed murder or serious injury could be put into that program with the understanding that jail and punishment would be immediate for a violation.

    It has worked in smaller places – maybe it could work in places like Matapan or Roxbury or other high crime places? I don’t know but would love an alternative to the present system.

  5. End the failed War on Drugs.

    That alone should result in a violent crime rate drop of about 50%.
    Right there is a nonviolent way to deal with the violence. Then, the people who used to be perps will be just another person.
    There, criminal justice reformed.

    Prohibition will never work in a free society.
    You could start right there.

  6. I am so not a lawyer: Does it means then the current state of the law prohibits using *evidence* acquired through a wiretap when the crime is not connected to organized crime?
    If that the case, I would agree with you Will this should be solved. If the debate is not about the evidence, but direct use of a wiretaped testimony in court, I have a different opinion though.

  7. The root of the problem is not fully addressed by a law enforcement program or by more legislation of gun ownership, but is cultural. To the extent that the civil society’s infrastructure of family and faith are broken down, chaos ensues; to the extent that government, perhaps inadvertently, encourages that breakdown by, for instance, welfare programs that accelerate that breakdown, fostering disrespect both for marriage and work, greater chaos ensues in the form of gang and gun violence as young men sublimate the need for a father figure in their lives to gangs anger and drugs. If this progressive pathology is not addressed in government and society, the problem will never be solved.

  8. Will, wiretaps should be permissible when it comes to solving serious crimes. You would have my support on that. When we think about solving violence in urban areas, though, we too often overlook the emerging evidence from public health approaches that recognize the epidemiology of violence and deploy measures to prevent it. We should have robust public health-oriented programs that work to stem violence through intake counselors attached to our hospitals, through violence interrupters attached to community-based organizations, and the like. There is a good body of evidence that such approaches work, and it’s not something that requires prosecution to bring down the violence.

  9. The Black community in Boston has thousands of law abiding, devout, and hardworking residents. All should recognize this reality and give good policing for their sakes.

  10. I totally agree. I strongly believe, Monies spent on Long-Term Residential Treatment Programs, consisting of Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Social Worker’s, Job Training and Counseling, Occupational Therapy, Medical Providers and a Gym, would not only REFORM offenders of ANY OFFENSE. But it would give them self-esteem, confidence in themselves, teach them patience through the patience,compassion and understanding of the staff working to help them. THIS IS HOW THE TAX PAYERS DOLLARS SHOULD BE SPENT.

  11. One way to try to stop violent crime is to BRING BACK FATHERS into kids lives. Most of the violent offenders were brought up in single MOM ONLY homes. Make it easier for Dads to stay in kids lives.

    One way to bring back dads is to pass the Child Centered Family Law bill. Till we start to help dads be dads, we will continue to sow the seeds of violence.

    1. I have seen example after example at my mother’s assisted living facility where the aides (all women living in known bad neighborhoods) have held 2&3 jobs to educate their children. They are moms that have left their childrens’ “VIOLENT” fathers to establish a stable home for their kids. These “MOMS” are so proud of their children who have completed their educations and are now professionals and their children are proud of them and grateful. They have families of their own and…a cycle is broken – BY WOMEN!

  12. Will, thank you for the information and the informative thoughts from citizens like me. My son is a new 10th grader in the BPS system (grade school as well). From his statements, and my partner and my experience’s/interactions in various school activities; it becomes clearer and clearer that most “challenged” schools and their students need help that is beyond scholastic help. Part of your bill should include the thought of pilot programs to study and prove that , 2 teachers per class and extra guidance counselors/mentorers (as a previous person mentioned)in challenged schools should be an obvious start. It is great news that free school breakfast’s will be the norm at most BPS schools this year. Jumping back to your proposed bill, I’m for wiretapped information being used in murder cases. Gang violence can only grow where a young person only sees untraversable, phsycological war zone in their future. If we could make this war zone/nightmare less of one we can lower the grip that the supposed security of gang membership brings.
    Thanks Will for all of your great work

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