As someone who works with people convicted of serious crimes and survivors of crime, I am often asked about the uptick in crime locally —how I feel about it, and what we can do about it. Honestly, as a mom and someone once mugged at gunpoint, I’m deeply concerned about violence in our city. I’m equally worried by continued calls for punitive approaches that ignore evidence that these responses actually make things worse. They miss this fundamental truth: our collective safety relies on our collective well-being, which is our collective responsibility.
Like COVID, violence is a public health crisis. It needs to be addressed as such, and our approach can’t be limited to our own blocks or neighborhoods. To reduce crime, we have to address the safety and well-being of our entire community, especially the most vulnerable among us.
Concrete Ways We Can Improve Safety
As a start, it helps me to understand the factors that lead to crime and how I contribute to them. Economic insecurity and social isolation are key factors that lead to crime and they’ve worsened since the onset of COVID. In addition, educational achievement gaps and wealth gaps have grown significantly in that time. Meanwhile, gentrification and rising housing costs, largely driven by white upper-middle class people moving into cities over the last 20 years, have pushed vulnerable populations further from the resources and opportunities they most need. This is especially true in Washington, D.C. Given these negative trends, it’s no surprise crime is on the rise in some cities.
I have contributed to gentrification in DC, so it’s especially important to me to not only “give back” but also advocate for, and contribute to, greater equity in our city. Advocating for better schools and jobs, healthy food, improved healthcare, summer programs for youth, and affordable housing, as well as policies that address the systemic issues destabilizing our most vulnerable communities advances equity and makes us all safer. Contributing to a mutual aid network like Serve Your City can help ensure that those in need are able to access resources from others in their community. Before turning to our Moms/Dads on the Hill list serv to sell used items, I first check to see if anyone in the Ward 6 Mutual Aid Network Facebook group could use them. It’s also a place to help pay for meals, diapers, and other needs that contribute to our community’s well-being. We can do this community work and hold our elected leaders to account to provide critical resources at a systemic level. Prominent think tanks such as the Brookings Institute have found that investing in systems of community care reduces crime and violence.
Trauma-Informed, Evidence-based Public Safety Strategies
Through my work, I’ve seen the value of violence reduction strategies led by those most impacted, which offer responses to crime that provide both healing to victims and restoration to our communities rather than exacerbating harm. Punishment has been the hallmark of our criminal legal system for decades—we are the most incarcerated nation on earth, and yet, we still have a crime problem. Ignoring the traumatic and harsh conditions in which low-income people often live before sending them to prison in record numbers simply hasn’t worked and often results in more crime. The National Institute of Criminal Justice issued a gun violence reduction plan for DC last year, emphasizing the need for trauma-informed, evidence-based responses to crime. All of us should familiarize ourselves with this plan and question policy proposals in the name of public safety that fail to align with it, such as those issued by the mayor recently.
I have also learned that most victims don’t find healing in our system of punishment, and would rather see people who commit harm rehabilitated. Restorative justice is an increasingly utilized response to crime, holding the responsible party accountable through an action plan determined by the community and the victim together. In DC, the Attorney General’s restorative justice program reportedly has a 95% satisfaction rate from victim participants. We can and should urge our elected officials to increase investments in restorative justice programs as key public safety tools.
These are some ways we can all make our community safer. There are many more, and I’d recommend learning about and supporting groups led by BIPOC community members who are disproportionately impacted by violence, to find solutions. We should invite others with privilege to join us in this effort and hold each other accountable along the way – including our elected leaders. Healthy cities are safe cities. Let’s make ours thrive.
Jody Kent Lavy is a Capitol Hill resident, member of the ANC6B public safety committee, and co-executive director of Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
1 Bennett, Laura, and Felicity Rose. “Deterrence and Incapacitation: A Quick Review of the Research.” The Center For Just Journalism, 2023, https://justjournalism.org/page/deterrence-and-incapacitation-a-quick-review-of-the-research. Accessed 25 July 2023.
2 Getachew, Dawit. “FWD.us on D.C. Council’s Passage of Bill Expanding Pretrial Incarceration Under Emergency Pretext.” Fwd.us, 12 July 2023, https://www.fwd.us/news/fwd-us-on-d-c-councils-passage-of-bill-expanding-pretrial-incarceration-under-emergency-pretext/. Accessed 25 July 2023.
3 Satcher, David. “Violence as a Public Health Issue.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, vol. 72, no. 1, 1995, pp. 46-56, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2359417/pdf/bullnyacadmed01034-0051.pdf.
4 Miller, Alice, and James Gilligan. “The Root of Violence by James Gilligan and Alice Miller.” The Trauma Recovery Institute, 17 August 2022, https://www.psychosocialsomatic.com/the-roots-of-violence/. Accessed 28 July 2023.
5 Kuhfeld, Megan, et al. “The pandemic has had devastating impacts on learning. What will it take to help students catch up?” Brookings Institution, 3 March 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-pandemic-has-had-devastating-impacts-on-learning-what-will-it-take-to-help-students-catch-up/#:~:text=Even%20more%20concerning%2C%20test%2Dscore,the%202020%2D21%20school%20year. Accessed 25 July 2023.
6 Stiglitz, Joseph E. “COVID Has Made Global Inequality Much Worse.” Scientific American, 1 March 2022, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-has-made-global-inequality-much-worse/. Accessed 25 July 2023.