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No, Philly Doesn’t Need to Cure Poverty to Reduce Crime

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No, Philly Doesn’t Need to Cure Poverty to Reduce Crime

The Philadelphia Inquirer June 25, 2019
Urban PolicyCrime

With the weekend fast approaching, many Philadelphia residents are probably looking forward to backyard barbeques, Sunday softball league games, or boozy brunches with friends. Others, however—particularly those in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods—are likely bracing themselves for violence.

Last weekend, 11 people were wounded in eight shootings in Philadelphia. And the weekend before, the city of brotherly love saw 19 shootings, which killed five and wounded 28. It was a particularly violent two days in which one man was killed at a graduation party, and a woman was murdered in a north side deli. The carnage prompted some state lawmakers to call for a declaration of state emergency.

Perhaps the most frustrating response, though, came from the city’s controversial district attorney, Larry Krasner. Elected on a platform of criminal justice reform—as opposed to public safety—Krasner took to Twitter last Monday, not to explain how he as one of the city’s chief law enforcement officials would help to address the city’s crime problem, but to argue that the solution lies in addressing crime’s “root causes.”

“This weekend’s tragic, alarming gun violence,” said Krasner “underscores why we must address the root causes of this public health crisis: Poverty, hopelessness, and a lack of gun control …”

Having recently re-read James Q. Wilson’s Thinking About Crime, I am regularly frustrated by how little progress has been made in the debate about crime in America. The book, which helped influence the crime-fighting revolution that took place in cities across America (especially New York), dedicates an entire chapter to explaining why addressing root causes is not a prerequisite for crime reduction. 

Perhaps the strongest evidence supporting Wilson’s argument as to “root causes” is the drastic and long-lasting crime decline experienced in New York City between 1990 and 2018, a period during which annual homicides went from 2,262 to 295. And with that decline in mind, I can’t help but wonder: Why is it you never hear people like Mr. Krasner offer a “root causes” explanation for the Big Apple’s violent crime decline? After all, if addressing root causes like poverty is the only way to reduce crime, surely we would have seen a drastic improvement in the Big Apple’s poverty rate during that period. Well, we didn’t.

Some might be quick to point out that Philadelphia’s poverty rate for 2017 (26 percent) was higher than New York’s (19 percent); but the latter’s poverty rate has been essentially steady for over a decade. Indeed, New York’s 2016 poverty rate (19.5 percent) was actually slightly higher than it was in 1989 (18.8 percent), when violent crime was an exponentially bigger problem.

Moreover, Philadelphia’s poverty rate has remained essentially steady since 2006, and was higher in 2011 (28.4 percent) when there were fewer murders than there were last year in the city.

Now, it’s true that New York State’s gun laws (the other “root cause” according to Krasner) are indeed stricter than Pennsylvania’s. However, there is little evidence that this explains why Philadelphia is experiencing so much violent crime. Pennsylvania’s gun laws are not materially more permissive than those in, say, Texas or Nevada; yet Philly’s per 100,000 murder rate for 2018 (19.8) was higher than those of Las Vegas (8.6); Houston (11.8); Austin (3.5); Fort Worth (6.3); El Paso (2.5); and Dallas (13.4).

It seems clear that James Q. Wilson was right when he wrote, “If human behavior is shaped by the tangible utility of alternative courses of action, then there is little reason to assume that it will be shaped only by those utilities called ‘jobs’ and not also by those called ‘penalties.’”

Given his response to the city’s recent violence, and his notorious support for large-scale decarceration, it seems this is a lesson Krasner (and other members of the “progressive” prosecutor movement) seem to have either missed or forgotten. In cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and, yes, Philadelphia, it shows.

This piece originally appeared at The Philadelphia Inquirer


Rafael A. Mangual is a fellow and deputy director for legal policy at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here

Photo by tupungato/iStock