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Crime Roots

Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring releases a report that examines potential indicators of criminal activity.


Richmond’s top prosecutor wants to change the way the city thinks about crime.

After two years of research, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring and program staffer Iman Shabazz have published Beyond Containment, a 12-page report outlining eight factors they believe may contribute to a person’s decision to commit a crime. Those factors include trauma; poverty; health; race and identity; housing; education and youth programs; social media and culture; and law enforcement.

The report suggests that the current justice system is flawed in its prioritization of arrests, convictions and sentences to improve public safety over prevention and rehabilitation efforts.

“For a long time, we have focused our efforts on responding to outcomes,” the preface reads. “Our energy and resources may be better spent on shaping them.”

Herring, who’s held the elected position as the city’s commonwealth’s attorney since 2006, says he’s found it increasingly difficult to persuade residents to participate and assist in criminal cases due to a deep-seated distrust for law enforcement, especially in low-income communities of color. This breakdown of trust and communication led him and Shabazz, a longtime community organizer and advocate for incarceration alternatives, to investigate what causes crime in the first place.

Their premise was that perhaps if they could identify specific factors that lead to a person’s criminal activity, they can restructure the conversation around crime, informing new policies that are proactive rather than reactionary. Over the course of two years they’ve held dozens of focus groups with incarcerated and returning residents, city leaders, academic experts, community members of all ages and agencies like the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the Richmond Police Department, the Richmond Public Schools and the Department of Social Services.

“It really is an offshoot of what had otherwise been our failed attempts at increasing cooperation in the community and confidence in the justice system,” Herring says.

The report is both a culmination of their analysis and what Herring and Shabazz hope will be the beginning of a larger, city-wide conversation about the perception of and response to criminal activity. Each section presents a social factor as a potential indicator of crime, presenting statistics alongside provocative discussion questions like “Should law enforcement, courts and prosecutors be concerned about the disparate number of minorities cycling through the criminal justice system?” and “If the law is being applied fairly, is this still a problem?”

Not written in legalese, the report is easy to read and often straight to the point. “The neighborhoods and populations most impacted by crime are poor and of color,” reads the first line of the segment on race and identity. “Indeed, the demographic of Richmond courtrooms and detention facilities is decidedly brown.” Referencing the Police Department’s neighborhood crime data from 2016-2018, the section goes on to say that while Richmond’s population is less than 50 percent black, in the last three years, 88 percent of violent offenders and 77 percent of violent crime victims have been black.

Herring and Shabazz aren’t the first to draw connections between crime and socio-economic factors, particularly education. Fourth grade is considered a benchmark year, with reading levels being widely considered an indicator of future success, and the National Adult Literacy Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, reveals that 70 percent of incarcerated adults cannot read at the fourth-grade level. Virginia Department of Education data reveals that 60 percent of Richmond’s fourth-graders passed their English Reading Standards of Learning test in 2017-2018.

The research process has been reminiscent of root-cause analysis, a problem-solving tactic that involves identifying the factors that lead to a particular issue. Herring says he’s been hesitant to use the term because it implies that the “why” behind crime can be distilled to one single factor. Crime is more complicated, he says, and change can’t happen without acknowledging the intersectionality of social factors like affordable housing, racial relations and access to education.

“If we pull this off, it’s going to force the city at large to think about crime differently, and to recognize that there is a sequence of events that culminates in a criminal decision point,” Herring says. “It’s not as simple as a person deciding to do something wrong. That happens sometimes, but it forces the city to acknowledge that crime is far more complex.”

Herring and Shabazz know what they’re up against. They admit that some discussions leading up to the publication could be described as tense at best, and at one forum last summer with about 60 people in attendance, they never got past the subject of race. Herring says some people left the room before the event ended, and distrust, skepticism and a tendency to dig in heels will be constant challenges.

They’ve been clear since day one that the ultimate goal is to implement policies that will reduce crime and improve public safety without perpetuating the root problems. But they also know that they can’t rush into finding and implementing solutions. They want to sit in this phase of discussion and analysis for as long as needed.

“The idea is to have dialogue first. I think people are conditioned to move to a point of solution without really taking the time to do in-depth and proper analysis,” Shabazz says. “We’re not trying to rush to produce a solution now just to publish something publicly that sounds good.”

Shunda Giles, executive director of the Department of Social Services, describes the report as a “great framework for future conversation.” She understands the notion of embracing the discussion phase, but she’s wary of getting stuck without a plan to move forward.

“I’m big on not having conversations just for the sake of having them,” Giles says. “This is not new for anyone who’s doing this work or living this.”

Shabazz notes that he doesn’t expect everybody at the table to agree, but he says listening is crucial. He also hopes to see introspection and a willingness for agencies involved to take constructive feedback from the community.

Herring recalls perceiving a level of defensiveness from former Police Chief Alfred Durham in these discussions. “Not every scrutinizing or critical question is an attack,” he says.

Police Chief William Smith, who stepped in as interim after Durham announced his retirement late last year, says introspection and creative thinking are already priorities of the department.

“This is an area of our current focus, to constantly assess the outcome of programs and strategies and to increase our activities in communities that are underserved or underrepresented,” Smith writes in an email.

Herring says he’s also willing to face critique and examine the policies and practices of his own office.

“If we’re going to be critical of policing patterns and practices, then we need to be willing to scrutinize our decisions to go forward on cases,” he says. “For example, it’s time the city considered whether it wants to prosecute drug crime, period. You can’t just not prosecute the cases, but you’ve got to be willing to allocate resources to deal with the people nonpunitively, noncriminally.”

At least one City Council member has taken time to read through the 12 pages. Sixth District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, who calls the project a “very meaningful and valuable effort,” agrees that it’s time for the city to re-evaluate its approach to crime.

“We can’t continue to just lock people up and have them come back to the same situation, so that when they come back home they’re worse off when they went,” Robertson says. “I think there’s a huge layer, a deep layer, of not just law enforcement, but the types of policies and laws that are on the books that are creating extreme adverse impact.”

As for next steps, Herring says he hopes to meet with city officials in the coming months. Copies of the report have gone to the mayor’s office, all members of City Council and every agency that participated in prior roundtable discussions.

Ideally, with support from city officials, he and Shabazz will hold a public summit sometime over the summer. They envision presentations on each of the eight risk factors in the report, with opportunities for the public to speak, and they say the project can only move forward with support from City Hall.

“It doesn’t stop at analysis of complicating factors,” Shabazz says. “It comes down to what the city leadership should do.”