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The Corners-to-Prison Pipeline

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from the magazine

The Corners-to-Prison Pipeline

The fight against crime requires a united front. Summer 2021
Public safety
Politics and law

This past June, federal prosecutors, working with the Baltimore Police Department, indicted 15 members of a lethal gang known as “CCC” or “Triple C” (which, in a revealing indicator of our cultural decline, reportedly stands for Cruddy Conniving Crutballs, not the Civilian Conservation Corps). Gang members had allegedly committed 18 murders and attempted 27 more between 2015 and 2020. Though that’s less than 1 percent of Baltimore’s stratospheric homicide total during that period, onlookers might still be tempted to find in the news grounds for optimism that Baltimore’s long-running crime wave is cresting.

Baltimoreans know better. The city has been here before, with large-scale busts leading to a temporary dip in violence that fades quickly. Indeed, Triple C rose to its recent position only after police indicted 14 members of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) in 2015 and another 34 in 2016. Triple C’s late founder, Gary Creek—who went on the run when indicted and took his own life when police tracked him down—had seen an opportunity as BGF’s ranks thinned, creating a startup to capture lucrative drug corners suddenly up for grabs and then diversifying into contract killings, carjackings, and robberies.

In economics jargon, BGF’s demise had disturbed the competitive equilibrium, creating opportunities for rivals. Of course, in illegal economies, competition for market share and profits usually takes violent forms. According to the indictment, this included “murders of rival gang members and narcotics dealers” and “witness intimidation and retaliation.” But Creek and his minions also showed a flair for marketing, the indictment noted:

Triple C members supported rap artists or were burgeoning rap artists themselves, who would support Triple C by including lyrics about the gang in their songs. For example, in one rap artist’s music video on social media, the lyrics included “ain’t no Crip or no Blood, I’m Triple C baby.” Several alleged members and associates of Triple C are in the video dancing and waving firearms during the rap. In addition, gang members allegedly wore clothing touting the gang and warning against “snitching,” and promoted the gang by giving away clothing, such as T-shirts and hats.

All of which is deeply disquieting, not least because gangs like Triple C seem so skilled at normalizing a criminal culture among the young. Creek’s indicted lieutenants average just 22.9 years of age; most started down this bloody path before they could vote or take a legal drink. Many CCC foot soldiers and sympathizers are now in their teens. Among them—or in the ranks of Triple C’s rivals—might be the next generation of gang leaders eager to fill the market vacuum just created.

Stopping this vicious circle will require consistent cooperation across the ideological divide. Alas, progressives, whose power is absolute in cities like Baltimore, show zero appetite for the kind of proactive policing that dramatically reduced homicide rates in New York and elsewhere starting in the 1990s (for example, the stop, question, and frisk tactics that made gangbangers think twice about routinely carrying weapons). Even as evidence accumulates that de-policing is costing lives, demands to reduce police budgets proliferate, and some left-leaning prosecutors have effectively repealed laws against various “low-level” offenses such as drug possession or attempted distribution, prostitution, and trespassing. Decarceration is the watchword; police are supposed to focus on “trigger-pullers” or the relatively small number of criminals who account for a large share of violent crimes.

Conservatives correctly note that this approach, dubbed “targeted enforcement,” ignores the fact that becoming a criminal is a developmental process—and that tolerating lower-level offenses can lead to a sense of invulnerability that encourages escalation. An excellent case study of California’s dysfunctional juvenile- justice system, Edward Humes’s No Matter How Loud I Shout (1996), profiled many delinquents who faced trivial consequences for minor crimes and then were shocked to find themselves charged as adults and doing hard time when, in their view, they had done little more than what had previously earned them a slap on the wrist.

But conservatives, understandably reluctant to throw money at problems, tend to overlook the fact that some programs do reduce delinquency and limit the supply of youths willing to sign on with the likes of Triple C. Early intervention is key: one Department of Justice study found that very young offenders—often with “first referrals” before age ten—have a much higher probability of moving on to serious, violent, and chronic careers than older-onset delinquents. A Rand Corporation study reported high returns (in crimes averted) from interventions such as parent-training and incentives for completing high school. And data from the Chicago Longitudinal Study show that “comprehensive educational and family support services from ages 3 to 9” were cost-effective, generating improvements in academic achievement and reductions in juvenile crime that yielded social benefits many times their cost.

We can only hope, then, that some compromise is possible—with those on the left backing off the de-policing appeals to facilitate short-term progress against crime, and those on the right loosening the purse strings for crime-prevention programs that hold longer-term promise. Failing that, we’re likely to keep reading the same stories about high murder rates in cities like Baltimore for years to come.

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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