As the recent string of heinous homicides and other violent crimes have shocked the community to its core and brought Memphis nearly to its knees, filled with deep concern, anxiety, and skepticism, we are all left with a singular yet very important question. Where do we go from here?
Investing in Criminal Justice
In their April 2021 report, “A Better Path Forward for Criminal Justice,” the Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform states that “tough on crime policies have created the world’s largest prison population and from the perspective of rehabilitation and recidivism, the most ineffective criminal justice system. It is almost as if over policing, prosecution, and imprisonment are habits that the United States just cannot break” (Brookings-AEI Report).
According to the U.S. Justice Department, we spend approximately $300 billion annually to police communities and incarcerate 2.2 million people, at a cost of $134,000.00 per offender.
Overall, it seems as if our ongoing investment in the criminal justice system has failed to yield the outcomes we desire – safer communities, reduced recidivism, fewer crimes, etc. And it’s further evident that our investment in the private prison industry has made this paradigm even worse. Putting this in more perspective, Matthew 6:21 says “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
While the above commentary rings true and public safety remains of the utmost importance, especially in a city where violent crime has become insidiously wicked, prevalent, and more complex, we’re now forced to reexam our investment in criminal justice and approach for building safer communities.
Public Health vs. Public Safety
For some time now, we’ve heard opinion leaders, politicians, and even public health experts argue the value and importance of mental health care and other social service programs as viable methods in which to reduce crime. While I wholeheartedly agree with these recommendations, in theory and philosophy, the scope of the problem goes a bit deeper than that. According to U.S. Department of Justice, more than 50% of those currently incarcerated have mental health conditions – and many of these will be released and returned to society untreated.
Some argue that our approach to community policing needs to be more rigorous, while others believe that the solution to crime is deeply rooted in jobs, education, and economics, “the politics of criminal justice.” Unfortunately, we’ve learned that the amount of time devoted to debating ideological perspectives and political philosophies, often generates a ‘back-n-forth’ diatribe that has typically shown few, if no results at all.
For these reasons alone, we need both an entire shift in thinking and methodology if we are to make any lasting progress in these areas, which includes both public safety and public health measures if we intend to address the crime in Memphis in any meaningful way.
Written five years ago in response to the plague of juvenile crime in Memphis, the 2017 Commercial Appeal opinion editorial "Treating Youth Crime as A Public Health Crisis" speaks candidly about using trauma-informed methods and other collaborative public health approaches in addressing crime.
To be effective, by and large, these efforts should include a combination of public health, public safety, and community support measures, such as city-wide counseling programs, amnesty and guns for jobs initiatives, and robust pretrial intervention and comprehensive mental health services at 201. All of which should be primarily focused on their immediate effects and long-term results. This is seemingly the most logical way of addressing this crisis and moving ahead.
A Pound of Cure
Inarguably, as the violent crime in Memphis also presents a clear and present danger to public health, we either need to reimagine our efforts in crime prevention, or become more efficient at crisis management? The recurrent crime in Memphis, is like a disease – it’s progressive, chronic, and fatal.In her research report on environmental health, entitled “The Uneven Path Forward," Julia R. Barrett said that “understanding the patterns of disease can be used to better predict, prevent, and treat diseases.” If you agree with this, then we all have much more work to do in the area of crime prevention.In his 1736 address to the fire-threatened Philadelphians, Benjamin Franklin, coined the famous phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” To spell it out further, Franklin was suggesting that it’s much easier to prevent fires, than putting them out, and everyone should be involved.
All Hands On Deck
Following a recent conversation with Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, Joseph C. Murphy, it’s clear that crime prevention in this city is “everybody’s business.” As much of the problems we see often begin in the home, we should all be concerned for our neighbors, coworkers, and everyone around us. Murphy said “we can’t expect the police to do this by themselves.” These same sentiments were echoed during the Better Community Summit on September 17, 2022, at the Greater Community Temple in East Memphis.
While bringing community leaders, clergy, law enforcement personnel, and other humanitarians together to discuss crime prevention is very important, the main people that need to be in attendance at these events are often not there. I’m referencing both the youth and adults who are either in crisis or struggling to keep it all together.
Whether we’ve come to this realization or not, everyone is a victim of crime, including the perpetrators. Someway and somehow, we must refocus our efforts on reaching them; otherwise, the future looks bleak and the path forward unpromising.
Thurston Smith is an Associate Minister at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, a Professor of Sociology at Graceland University, community activist, and retiree from the U.S. Veterans Health Administration.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Constructing a road to crime prevention and a safer Memphis community