Chuck Barrett

Progressive fiction, poetry and commentary


Don’t Look Back—Street Crime Versus Community Safety

The legendary African-American baseball pitcher Satchel Paige famously said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Something, indeed.  But what?

One of those things concerns public safety and the mistaken concept that defines threats to community safety as crimes committed by individuals, particularly poor people and people of color.

This flawed concept has resulted in massive rates of costly imprisonment skewed towards the poor and people of color.  According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative and Tucson’s Second Chance Community Bail Fund, Arizona has a rate of imprisonment for African-Americans more than five times that of whites.  For Latinxs it is twice the rate of whites, for Native Americans, nearly four times the rate for whites.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Alternatives work. Probation, in fact, gets generally reasonable results, with some 20% re-offending, the majority of these being nonviolent drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Prison parolees and those who serve full sentences, by contrast, re-offend some 65% of the time within five years. And the cost? A highly respected Vera Institute for Justice study shows the annual incarceration costs for Arizona runs $24,800 per year per prisoner.  That’s compared to about $4,700 per year for high intensity probation supervision and about $1,000 per year for regular supervision probation cases.

This writer worked for fifteen years on alternatives in Washington, D.C. My experience was that our nonfinancial pretrial release programs successfully returned felony releasees to court 98.5% of the time with all the conditions of their release met.  Our post-conviction sentencing alternative projects—such as offender-run businesses and employment training—succeeded almost as well.

But I still hear Satchel whispering: “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”

What’s “gaining on you” is unacknowledged crime that is corporate and largely white.  It’s far more dangerous to community safety than individual street crime (which, by the way, anonymous victim and offender studies show is committed disproportionally by white people).

For example, you are somewhat more likely to die from criminal acts of your employer than you are from a street homicide of any kind.  The murder rate in this country is about 4 persons per 100,000.  The average rate of industrial deaths due to willful violations of safety and health laws by employers is about 4.5 per 100,000.  The generally accepted proof of a willful violation is that the employer is a repeat offender, convicted of the same violation at least once before. The 4.5 per 100,000 figure averages all occupations, yet the per 100,000 rate for some occupations is astronomically higher: agriculture, 27.9; mining, 25.1; and transportation, 16.9.

Another 50,000 workers die each year from preventable exposure to hazards in the workplace!  That’s more than three times the total number of homicides.

So given this murderous carnage, what are the penalties?  The maximum penalty for willful violations resulting in death is a class B misdemeanor carrying merely six months in jail and a $10,000 fine.  It is almost never applied.

Don’t look back—tobacco kills 114,000 people every year and has no social value whatsoever. 

Don’t look back—the C.D.C. says lightly regulated gun violence kills more than 33,000 every year in recent years.

Don’t look back—the EPA estimates that 300,000 Americans suffer pesticide poisoning each year according to a 2005 Cornell University study.

It is high time we as a society shaped our laws according to the shape of the real threats to our lives and safety, rather than to the false shape of our prejudices.

Chuck Barrett is President of Amanecer, an Arizona nonprofit organization. He worked in prisons, prison alternatives, community corrections, pretrial release and prisoner rights for fifteen years in the 1970s and 1980s and currently is a volunteer with Prisoner Visitation and Support, a national organization that visits prisoners in federal and military prisons.

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