The Same People From the Same Neighborhoods

By Phil Basso, Deputy Executive Director, APHSA VIEWS 1

Taken together, a near-perfect design of structural inequity, hiding in plain sight...


(This is part 5 of an ongoing series, Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account.)


Earlier in this series I noted that I grew up in a somewhat poor and racially diverse town. As I understand it from old friends, Central Islip or “CI” now carries the nickname “Crack Islip.” In Brentwood, the next town over, gangs have been executing youth to a degree that it’s been in the national news. Yet when I visit my best friend, who still lives in CI and manages a social services center nearby, everything feels more like the way it was than like some dystopian nightmare. There are no demons and packs of wolves roaming about. Most of the recent immigrants, according to my friend, are more conscientious neighbors than we had as kids. People on the street are helpful and respectful. Young kids are basically trying to learn and have fun.


I raise this picture of a struggling place for a few reasons. First, all places have great strengths and potential, even ones facing serious problems and public safety challenges, notorious in the news, or struggling economically. Second, these places are often more feared than supported outside their own boundaries, and the approaches taken by police, educators, and landlords is at times more putative—the opposite of privilege—than is warranted or effective. Third, as a result the people who live in these communities become more and more reliant upon one another rather than outsiders. Our jury saw this time and again.


We realized we were seeing the same people from the same neighborhoods, like a factory with certain places growing and then exporting the raw materials. Of the 73 cases we reviewed, all but two of the accused were Black or Hispanic, and all but one were struggling economically as far as we could tell. We saw the “closing ranks” tendency manifested in a few ways that perpetuate the cycle that brings people living there to court. Youth gangs establishing ironclad codes of conduct related to other gangs that invariably lead to violent clashes over turf and respect. A vigilante brought in by a relative to clean up the loitering youth, progressing to shots fired in the air and then at a victim. “Trap houses” well-marked by police and neighborhoods that are zones of extreme drug use. A case of the accused hiding a gun used by “higher up” criminals in a recent murder—untouchable due to a code of silence and intimidation.    


Our jury learned right away that the court process was not trusted by most of the people brought before us. While respectful of our jury, most witnesses looked at us with as much curiosity as we looked at them. Ratting and snitching were viewed by many as akin to the crimes we were reviewing. One witness sprang away from the stand, claimed to be “on every drug” and begged to be let go out of fear for his family. Others calmly lied to us while some laughed and joked as they were lying. These “insular” conditions may result in a cycle of crime and community-based fear but not because the people living there are genetically predisposed or are not possessed of American values. There’s just no trusted substitute for those with influence who live in the community itself.


One day when we didn’t have anything on our regular docket, we were told we would be handling the “RIP” cases that day. RIP cases are for potential drug indictments. These were brought to us to complete, soup to nuts, in less than an hour. A detective or police officer was interviewed by the prosecutor, we were given instructions, and we voted. While most of these cases struck us as credible, two related concerns arose. First, drug use in middle-class or affluent places is also high—witness opioid abuse—but since the methods of dealing are more visible and dangerous in poor places, we were only seeing those. Second, since the drug trade in poor places requires arming one’s self, almost all the indictments carried counts of violent crime that result in a much harsher outcome for those involved. We had a case where a dealer was chased by police while carrying a gun and stumbled into one or two other officers that tried to tackle him. The resulting counts were akin to him having been in a gun battle with the police.


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? There is no comparable Constitutional shield or bedrock in these insular places. Instead, we’ve designed a system that generates cycles of crime, missing parents (especially dads), chronic poverty and insecurity, and societal fear of these places with a tendency to dehumanize or demonize the people who are struggling there. Taken together, a near-perfect design of structural inequity, hiding in plain sight. 


*This is part 5 of an ongoing series, Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account. You can catch up here and check back every Friday for more.