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On Monday, May 19, Antonio E. Smith became another entry in the District crime blotter. Just before 7 o’clock that morning, Smith, 25, was found near the intersection of 60th and Blaine Streets NE. He had been shot in the head. Emergency medical personnel couldn’t find a heartbeat and pronounced him dead at the scene.
According to police figures, Smith was the 95th homicide victim in the District so far this year. The total number of homicides is 10.5 percent above what it was at the same time last year. That’s down from a month ago, when the tally was 23 percent ahead of last year’s pace.
On April 22, appearing on WAMU-FM’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey offered the Metropolitan Police Department’s latest theory about the uptick in the murder rate. “I had my Homicide Branch taking a look at motives and the like….I had them check to see how many of the victims were recently released from the penitentiary,” Ramsey said. “Thirty-three percent of the people killed so far this year were released from the penitentiary in less than one year.”
Since the chief’s radio statement, the police estimate of the percentage of ex-offenders among homicide victims has been refinedthe latest iteration is that 29 percent of this year’s homicide victims had been in jail as recently as 2002, and that 43 percent of them had served time in jail or prison. The numbers have become boilerplate, cited twice in the Washington Post this month.
The message is that the spike in the homicide rate comes from criminals killing criminals. With more former prisoners on the street, the theory goes, the numbers are rising naturally.
But the analysis doesn’t hold up under closer inspection. Year-to-year fluctuations in the homicide rate are meaningless, says William Chambliss, co-director of the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University “The only dramatic trend [in homicide rates] is in the past 10 years,” which shows that the rate has been decreasing. Ramsey did not return calls seeking comment.
Even if you buy Ramsey’s logic, his methodology has flaws. The chief has never said how the current makeup of homicide victims compares with that of past years. “We don’t know [the numbers for] any other point in time…so there’s no way we can say whether there’s been a change, whether it’s been something new,” says Jeremy Travis, former director of the National Institute of Justice, now a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
And by combining prison and jail figures, District homicide detectives made no distinctions among actual convicted felons, people who served time for minor offenses, and people who were merely arrested and never prosecuted.
In reviewing the criminal backgrounds of this year’s first 90 homicide victims, the Washington City Paper found that only 18 of them20 percent of the totalhad spent six months or longer in prison or jail as adults.
Many of the others included in the police department’s 43 percent figure were locked up for relatively short periods of time. Take Makye Hardy, 18, fatally shot in front of 2411 Benning Road NE on Jan. 11. Hardy had one arrest recorded in the D.C. Superior Court Criminal Information System: In 2002, police picked him up for marijuana possession. The case was not prosecuted. Then there’s Kevin Young, 38, killed on April 9, who spent 60 days last year in jail on charges of sexual solicitation.
The fact that a high proportion of homicide victims have at one time passed through jail or prison merely reflects some long-standing realities of urban life: African-American men make up a disproportionate number of murder victims. They are also disproportionately affected by policing and hence more likely to have contact with the criminal-justice system.
This is especially true in the District. In 1999, 1,314 of every 100,000 District residents were incarcerated, according to Travis; the national average that year was 476. D.C. is home to about 50,000 African-American males between the ages of 18 and 35. On any given day, according to estimates from the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, nearly half of them are in jail or prison, on probation, parole, or pretrial release, or being sought on a warrant.
“[T]he basic underlying point [in Ramsey’s statement] is that homicides involve people with a history of criminal-justice involvement,” Travis says. “People on probation or parole are sometimes going to end up on the perpetrator side, and sometimes on the victim side.”
Ramsey takes a bigger leap when he argues that the rise in the number of returning prisoners is responsible for this year’s spike in the homicide rate.
“We’ve been getting 2,000 to 3,000 people per year back in the District that have served time in penal institutions,” Ramsey said on the radio. “You’d have to think that, at a minimum, a third if not a higher percentage of offenders were recently released as well.”
Nationally, more people are coming home from prison. And those who return have a high recidivism rate: About two-thirds are arrested again within three years of being released. But the increase in the number of returning prisoners is not a recent development. It’s been a trend for the past 20 years. “In all this talk about re-entry, some people are getting it wrong,” says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates criminal-justice reform. “It’s not this tidal wave coming home that was bottled up for a long time. It’s more this cycling through [the criminal-justice system].”
In the District, too, the rise in the number of returning prisoners has been incremental. In 2002, the federal Bureau of Prisons released 2,100 D.C. felons to the jurisdiction of the Court Services and Supervision Agency, the federal agency that handles the District’s parole and probation duties. That represented a small increase, of approximately 5 percent, from the year before.
Nationwide, the greatest spike in the number of prisoners released from state institutions took place in the ’90sa time when urban homicide rates, including the District’s, were falling. In fact, in recent years, the number of prisoners released each year has been shrinking, notes Travis.
Chambliss says that if police analysts want to connect the dots between the number of returning prisoners and the crime rate, they will have to look at the criminal backgrounds of victims and perpetrators for the past 20 years.
Chambliss, however, doubts that Ramsey will do the math. He suspects that the figure Ramsey is really worried about is the bottom line. “Police chiefs across the country are doing the same thing,” he says, “coming up with all kinds of alarmist statements….It’s playing politics with statistics.” CP