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.

41 replies on “Homicide Ghettoside”

  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

  13. Max Weber said that one of the criteria of a state is that it should have a monopoly on the use of violence. I agree and believe we should make the ownership and use of guns by civilians illegal in this state, regardless of what special interests want.

    Since the rate of recidivism goes down after 60, we should considering releasing people over that age from prison.

    We also need to work to make our society fairer so that some people don’t secure well-paying jobs through connections and others are left to fend for themselves. We also need to improve our public schools and pay teachers much better

    The recent films by Taylor Sheridan–Hell or High Water and Wind River–vividly depict the despair and violence of young adults who are poorly educated and functionally illiterate.

    1. Right in Will’s original post, he relates the story that the guns in question don’t come from within this state. Also, the three states with the lowest murder rates are right to the north of us and those states have among the least restrictive gun laws in the country.

      This country was founded on the state *not* having a monopoly on violence, whether special interests want to admit that or not. If you want to ban guns entirely, you’ll need to amend the legal document that the country was based on. I wish you luck.

      1. Yes, and that is why H. Rap Brown said that “violence is as American as cherry pie.”

        The country was also founded on slavery. But we got rid of slavery after a civil war that cost 600,000 lives.

        Until we restrict the gun manufacturers and the NRA, we will have the highest rate of gun violence in the civilized world.

        1. That gun violence rate is largely suicides. Our overall suicide rate is very similar to the UK and Australia. There are other developed countries with much higher suicide rates yet they have essentially no guns.

          So, if we ban guns and suicides happen at the same rate, was your ban effective?

          As gang related activities, which is most of the rest of that number, we prohibit drugs yet they get in.

  14. Figure out why these young men grow up without both parents raising them, and therefore turn to gangs. Further, look at the disaster that the war on drugs has been and its parallels to Prohibition.

    Everything else, including gun control laws, is a bandaid.

    I’ll also say that the people who actually commit these crimes are a very small minority and are known to police. For whatever reason, those people aren’t prosecuted. We don’t want people going to prison for offending malum prohibitum laws, but we also should be vigorously prosecuting those that do actual harm.

    Again, fix the families. Even if we ignore the violence issue, being raised like that doesn’t prepare a person for school or career.

  15. I know this isn’t part of your brief, Will, but criminal justice reform needs to be accompanied by social reform addressing conditions that lead to violence and crime. The poverty rate in Boston has been 20% for decades or longer. The unemployment rate among persons of color is double that of whites. And Boston is not the worst of our cities on these measures.

  16. I also recommend a novel, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas for an exceptional perspective of a very articulate black teenager.

  17. Bring proven great teachers into public schools in these communities. Pay them a fortune and let them start with the very youngest students. Give these educators the freedom to use their talents, uninhibited by, say, unions.
    Again, pay them a fortune far and above the normal pay scale. You’ll have terrific teachers knocking down the doors to get in.

    1. It’s been pretty well proven that a student with great support at home going to a mediocre school will do better than a student with no support going to a great school.

      Teachers are important but that’s not getting to the root cause of the problem.

  18. Right on Will!

    You identify here the knot of not being employed,
    excellent access to weapons, the police–while trying
    hard–to to have more people, muscle, money to
    make a mark, with coordinated social help and courts.

    Onward. I would love to see the proposed reforms
    when you are ready.

  19. Most of them have a gun? If l had to live in that area. I’d carry too.
    Do you want to eliminate 90 percent of the crime? Simple. Give these young people jobs and hope.

  20. Thank you for your work on this issue. I’m hopeful criminal justice reform can end mass incarceration. Tough sentences just aren’t effective. Prevention and support are the answers.

  21. Dear Mr. Brownsberger,
    Not only do I not understand why wiretapping cannot be used to solve a crime, but why can’t DNA be mandatorily used in ANY case to determine innnocence or guilt. That would surely spare innocent people from going to jail or worse.
    As far as ANY black people getting murdered in this or any other state by their own. Where is the outcry from the “BLACK LIVES MATTER GROUPs”? Why aren’t they bringing attention & policing their own who commit these murders or attacks on their own people in their community? Why do most of the headlines seem to make the front pages when cops are involved? These groups & the black communitiy should be just as appalled when their own are the killers.
    Perhaps if they did more within their community & specifically monitoring their children & reporting them if they have weapons, that some of this violence could be curbed

    1. Violence in poor, urban neighborhoods is totally unrelated to police officers shooting black citizens whom they have stopped for what are often dubious reasons.
      The treatment of blacks by law enforcement is something that has long been known among blacks and anybody who, like me, has worked in the criminal justice system for the last 30 years. It is only now been brought to the attention of the suburbanites through videos. Without video, the description of events given in the police report would still be accepted by the juries as the absolute truth.
      You don’t have to say Blue lives matter because that is accepted by society and rightfully punished, often with the death penalty. We would like to believe All Lives Matter, but the reality is, when we said All Men are Created Equal, for about 150 years we really meant white men. It is undeniable that black men are stopped routinely by police and they are disproportionately shot as a result of these interactions.
      That’s why we are forced to say “Black Lives Matter”, because it isn’t the case in right now. The argument that black people are killing each other “in their community” therefore police are justified in shooting a black man at a traffic stop is merely a rationalization seized upon by those who aren’t getting pulled over or shot dead on the rare occasion they do get stopped.

    2. It’s very shortsighted of you to assume based on no evidence that BLM and black communities are unconcerned about the violence in their neighborhoods. I question your motive for even making such a statement. Where is your evidence to say that the people being directly affected aren’t doing anything to solve the problem? Oh, right, you don’t have any.

  22. I always appreciate your thoughts and suggested reading and the seriousness with which you take your job, Will. The problem of well armed hot headed youth without jobs/structure is certainly a serious one and our answer has been to get them off the street and locked up. So much better to have the troublesome ones sent to the DYS, which has programming and, I understand, capacity to help. So I hope your reform package will include raising the end of juvenile jurisdiction from 18 to 21. As you yourself have said, that would be the single most effective way to reduce the prison population.

    I agree we need good, dedicated prosecutors, but we don’t need mandatory minimums. Prosecutors were doing good work without them without the unintended consequence of innocent people serving time and/or getting a criminal conviction.

    We have a pretty good judiciary. Maybe the next issue for reformers should be appointed vs. elected prosecutors.

    1. Legally, none. Federal law already prohibits interstate transfers via private parties without a background check. In other words, if the buyer and seller live in separate states, they have to do the transfer through a federally licensed dealer.

  23. Thanks for the update, Will. Often, the comment section is a useful read to get insight into other’s ideas that often add information and data to what you write. Even the negative comments shed light on why people disagree.
    In a future update, I’d like to know more about “And we need to legislatively support restorative justice and diversion for less serious cases.”

  24. Hi Will,
    I’m wondering what your take is on the idea of allowing parents convicted of non-violent crimes avoid jail time in various ways. This seems so patently unfair I can’t believe that isn’t obvious. If you can be trusted to utilize an alternative punishment / rehab situation then you should be given that choice whether you have a child or not. What say you?

    1. The point is to protect the children from the harm of separation from their primary caretaker, not to give the primary caretaker a break.

      The bill that is pending would merely require a judge to formally consider the issue at the time of sentencing. It does not mandate an outcome.

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