The Blog

One Path to Crime Reduction

The reactive approach taken by D.C.'s justice system lets petty criminals off the hook and leaves open the possibility of committing major felonies in the future. Criminals should know that even the most minor offenses won't be tolerated.
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In the 30-day period ending last week, there were 15 non-weapon-related robberies in the Capitol Hill neighborhood near Eastern Market. This is a dramatic increase from just the single incident that occurred here during the same period last year. Sociologists and other experts may pontificate about the reasons behind spikes in crime like this, and common wisdom will blame it on economic hardship or even the milder weather we have seen this winter. Regardless of the reason, residents of Capitol Hill and all across D.C. have the right to live in safety, and without the fear of being terrorized when they walk out of their front doors. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system in the District of Columbia has been unable to deter criminals from engaging in illegal activity.

It comes as no surprise to most residents that there is a lack of enforcement and prosecution when it comes to non-weapon related offenses ranging from petty street crimes to even more serious misdemeanors such as second-degree theft. Most of us would not expect the police to investigate a stolen bike as vigorously as a sexual assault, armed robbery or other violent crime. To provide a personal anecdote, last winter I actually saw young men dealing marijuana near the Southwest Waterfront, called 911 and was told that there were other calls ahead of mine and that they were very busy. I waited for twenty minutes to see what would happen, but a police car never showed up.

When offenders are arrested, plea bargains and lessened charges often result in a lack of jail time. On the surface this makes sense to the average observer, especially in a system that is overburdened with violent criminals. But suppose this reactive approach to petty crime actually encouraged greater criminality as a whole?

When New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was elected to lead America's largest city, he was a big proponent of "The Broken Windows Theory." This was a concept first described in a 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which advocated for the strong enforcement of laws against petty crimes and for stiff penalties for criminals. Mayor Giuliani enacted a "zero tolerance" policy, throwing the book at all violators, even those who were skipping out on paying subway fares. This approach saw decreases in both violent and non-violent offenses for 10 years in a row. The burden on the criminal justice system was lessened, and the law was used as a deterrent to future crime.

In D.C., "zero tolerance" has never been an option. As a long-time resident, we have always assumed that due to political considerations, focus would always be on prevention through job training, education, economic assistance and other social welfare programs. These are important initiatives and I think they should continue. However, the reactive approach taken by our justice system lets petty criminals off the hook and leaves the door open for the strong possibility of committing major felonies in the future. In order to solve our dramatically rising crime problem, we need a proactive approach similar to what was implemented in New York City. Criminals should know that even the most minor of offenses will not be tolerated.

For our neighborhoods to truly be safe, we need to get much tougher on crime. Police should be more proactive and encouraged to seek out and arrest minor offenders for crimes such as possession of drug paraphernalia, drinking in public, and unlawful entry, to name a few. Prosecutors must be encouraged to charge violators with the maximum possible offense, and judges should implement harsher sentences. Criminal recidivism is much too high, and unless offenders get the message that crime does not pay, there is nothing preventing them from continuing a life that ignores the rule of law. The citizens of D.C. deserve a criminal justice system that protects them.

This column was intended to provide a general overview of the problems we face, but I hope to address more specific issues such as bureaucracy, zoning laws, low-income housing and other drivers of crime in future columns.