If you read past this sentence, please do so mindful of the fact that this essay is not an ad hominem callout of particular public officials, politicians, individuals or groups.
It is not about them.
Instead, it is about any community. At last, it is about us.
The present problem of community gun violence in the Champaign-Urbana area appears to be beyond the immediate control of local government. Yet a deeper and far more salient concern would be that addressing the problem is not beyond its control but, instead, beyond its present ken.
At its June 15 meeting, a member of the Champaign City Council explicitly invited the public to offer concrete proposals regarding remedies in lieu of scattershot grievances about police officers being unappreciated. One can only hope that the invitation was sincere and not more of the shallow, dilatory deflection which one has come to expect from far too many public officials.
Unfortunately, it appears that those in ultimate authority either cannot see or will not reify the notion that basic problem solving offers meaningful paths through the problem of rampant gun violence and that there exist remedies that would bear fruit along various scales and timelines. In all events, examples of meaningful government response can readily come to mind if one takes some time to think.
In broad measure and long term, state policies regarding the use of the prison system could be substantially revised. In short, penitentiary space should be reserved for offenders who are violent or incorrigible, while community-based sentencing for most other offenders should be both expanded and enhanced.
Indeed, classification of conduct such as driving with a suspended or revoked driver’s license as a felony — and sentencing such offenders to prison — has long been folly. The same can be said of other felonies that place emphasis on the status of the offender, such as failure to register as a sex offender or failure of a sex offender to report a change of address. The same can be said of any number of offenses that are properly characterized as property crimes.
This is not a threshold argument for decriminalization in any sense, much less for ham-fisted or slack-jawed prosecution of criminals. It is instead a clarion call to bring critical thought to bear on the classification, prosecution and disposition of criminal offenses. In lieu of symbolic definition and ritualistic prosecution of felonies, the statutory classification and range of penalties for misdemeanors could be expanded.
The scores of millions of dollars currently spent to house non-violent offenders in state prisons could instead be spent on augmented community-based sentences. Incarceration at the community level could still be available, ideally held in abeyance as a motivational tool and a last resort as a punitive sanction.
Finally, the state Code of Corrections could easily be amended to expand the scope of parole for offenders who are released from prison. Going forward, parole terms could be increased to, say, 10 years instead of what is presently the standard three years. Oversight of parolees could also be enhanced with proper funding. In the event a parolee reoffends (as is too often the case), his or her extended parole could simply be revoked. The process could be undertaken entirely at an administrative level, with a lowered standard of proof and at a fraction of the time and expense that attends formal prosecution of recidivists in the court system.
On narrower geographic and temporal scales — and of central import to the problem facing Champaign-Urbana — it should go without saying that preexisting provisions of criminal law simply must be resolutely and thoughtfully enforced both on the street and in the courthouse. The law must be resolutely enforced to send a message to all members of the community that crime and violence are unacceptable. Yet the law must also be thoughtfully enforced to send a related message that resolute law enforcement is a salutary program and not some invidiously discriminatory pogrom.
Moreover, part and parcel of thoughtful law enforcement is the notion that mere adjudication is not the end of the process, as often appears to be the case. Instead, a conviction should be a point of departure for individualized, focused sentencing and vigilant oversight of community-based sentences. Only this can maximize the possibility of achieving the dual goals of rehabilitation and deterrence that are prime objectives of the criminal justice system.
The recent article regarding a young probationer who reportedly shot himself in the wake of shooting a companion illustrates much about various cultural trends in the Champaign-Urbana area.
The story alone is horribly tragic. Yet the reported backstory is all the more so. From that broader perspective, the story is in equal measures disturbing and portentous and might say much about crime and punishment alike in the Champaign-Urbana community.
If one reads the increasingly long skein of articles reporting gun violence in C-U, a recurrent element is readily seen: a recidivist offender who either was or is currently the subject of feckless intervention or oversight by the criminal justice system. Thus, an essential rhetorical question arises:
How, and why, can an offender on probation for a weapons offense be once again armed, much less out and about in an alley at 1 a.m.?
It is, of course, human nature to conflate correlation and causation. In addition, it is to be conceded from the outset that perfection in the criminal justice process is forever unattainable.
Yet forsaking perfection can never explain nor excuse a lack of vigilant foresight and critical thought in dealing with ingrained criminality. With intellectual indolence and complacency comes disarray, leading ultimately to an insular anarchy that threatens all and everyone in a community. This is what appears to be underway in the C-U area.
Law-abiding citizens have the inherent right to expect that the government will do the utmost to provide protection against a growing criminal underclass, whether the citizen be an immediate victim or is simply exposed to the attendant diminution in the quality of life. That right of the citizen carries with it a coextensive duty on the part of government.
In addition, that governmental duty cannot be meaningfully executed unless the government first recognizes — and squarely acknowledges — that which is all too true: That there exist in many communities criminal subcultures that have no proper place, and which should not only be unwelcome but, indeed, vanquished by all legal means.
It would appear that C-U is afflicted not only with a malignant flare of gun crimes but also with what might be described as a cultural motor neuron disease; a progressive, wasting affliction that diminishes cognition and productive movement alike. Inspired, vigorous law enforcement, augmented by critical thought, is an essential component of a fresh start toward a remedy, even accepting that there is no immediate cure on the horizon.
Here it must be noted that the standard wheeze, “We can’t arrest our way out of this” is an all too common mantra of pusillanimous police executives, policymakers and prosecutors. Indeed, it seems at times that the phrase only serves as a punctuation mark in the transcript of a government press conference. Moreover, the very notion is often simply not true.
In the 1980s, downtown Champaign was chronically afflicted with a synergistic combination of blight and crime. Among other dysfunctional conditions, the area was bristling with street prostitutes and collateral criminality. As the problem grew worse, the prostitutes took to displaying and purveying their wares in the adjacent residential area.
The problem persisted for years until a small group of public employees, from various government agencies, pursued a common course of enforcement and remediation; a course that properly identified a problem, identified a multifarious remedy and pursued that remedy with critical thought, creativity and enduring commitment; all fostered by an informed, motivated and — most importantly — unified citizenry.
The remedy entailed 1) identification of a discrete group of offenders; 2) strict enforcement of all applicable statutes; 3) uncompromising prosecution of viable cases and 4) vigilant oversight and enforcement of conditions of community-based sentences, notably including curfews and travel restrictions.
That remedial recourse proved to be remarkably effective within months. Some details are set forth below in an excerpt from a subsequent publication of the United States Department of Justice devoted to the topic of problem solving in the realm of public safety and welfare.
Some observers might suggest that the program is ancient history, a history of which they were likely first unaware. Some might also suggest that the program was insular, limited to a relatively small section of the city.
Yet both of those observations are devoid of breadth and depth alike. Problem solving on a broader scale requires only that the scope of critical thought itself be broadened. It really is just that simple.
It is difficult to identify with complete accuracy what underlies an apparent element of forbearance and reticence in the law enforcement arena in months past, particularly in the face of a triple-digit increase in gun crimes. Two things are, however, inarguably true: First, underlying policy decisions are being made by elected officials. Second, and most importantly, those decisions are in equal measure important and profoundly difficult. Moreover, the position of the respective public officials is far from enviable.
Yet it might also be a safe bet that any reticence in the enforcement arena is mired in politics and, perforce, in what one might politely describe as a certain lack of informed will.
Thus, each and all of us must muster the will both to speak and to face what some social commentators have described as Capital-T Truth:
The longstanding official reticence and attendant forbearance to resolutely enforce the law — which one might well describe as pernicious timidity —is the polar opposite of what is called for at present.
It is time at last to wipe the slate clean, giving all thoughtful people — among the governments and the governed alike — a chance to write. May all join in and write both well and wisely, perchance to pen a positive charter for a civil society that recognizes the sanctity of the American rule of law and the central importance of its vigilant and thoughtful enforcement.
Chase Leonhard is a former Champaign County associate judge.