In the summer of 2019, Brittany Hill was 24, and walking with her toddler daughter through Chicago’s Austin neighborhood when a sedan slowly approached, and two men opened fire.
Caught in a gang shootout, Hill shielded her child as bullets flew, hiding them both behind the bumper of a parked car. Although two men rushed to her aid, it was too late. Hill died at the hospital, and her daughter was left motherless at just one year old.
The horrific episode — captured on a Chicago police surveillance camera and “one of the most tragic videos I had ever seen,” according to New York criminologist Rafael A. Mangual — quickly led to the arrests of two men: Michael Washington, 39, and Eric Adams, 23.
Both had long records, but Washington’s stood out: nine felony convictions, including second-degree murder in 2004, and a previous attempted murder charge reduced to battery in a plea deal.
“What on earth were these guys — especially Washington — doing out on the street?” Mangual wondered. That question led him to investigate crime and punishment in America with his new book, “Criminal (In) Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most” (Center Street), out now.
Using a wide range of stats, Mangual shows that most American violent crime is perpetrated by a small number of criminals — primarily young men with long rap sheets — and that gun violence affects an equally small minority of Americans, mainly in New York, Chicago and other large metro areas.
Just two percent of all US counties account for half the nation’s homicides, he writes, and depending on the location as many as 95 percent of the victims are black or Hispanic.
“If you were to randomly drop 10,000 people over the United States, the overwhelming majority of them will land somewhere with a murder rate close to zero,” he writes. “An unlucky few, however, will drop into neighborhoods with homicide rates rivaling those of some of the most dangerous places in the world.”
Among recent shooting victims was 16-year-old Kahlik Grier, gunned down in January 2021 in the stairwell of his Bronx apartment building. One of the suspects, Desire Louree, had been released from jail just a month before the murder.
“Louree had open cases for gun possession and attempted murder — the former from 2019, and the latter stemming from a 2020 shooting in Brooklyn,” Mangual writes.
The root cause of our sky-high murder problem, he argues, is “the antisocial dispositions of violent criminals and a street culture that elevates violence as both a legitimate means of dispute resolution and a basis for respect.”
A key example is convicted killer Thaddeus “TJ” Jimenez. After being awarded $25 million in 2012 over a wrongful conviction, he had a golden chance to give up the thug’s life in Chicago.
“Jimenez could have gone anywhere in the world to lead one of the many lives his newfound wealth would have sustained,” writes Mangual, “Instead, he went back to his West Side Chicago neighborhood and doubled down on the gangbanger lifestyle.”
In 2015, Jimenez shot a man twice as he was getting out of his car. “So far as I can tell, the victim was not robbed, and there was no indication that he owed Jimenez a cent — let alone an amount large enough to matter to someone recently graced with an eight-figure windfall.”
Mangual also examines a commonly accepted belief — among liberals but also some conservatives — that America locks up too many people. Despite comprising just five percent of the world’s population, the argument goes, we have 25 percent of its inmates, and something must be done to reduce those numbers.
But it is wrong to base the “mass incarceration” theory on the large number of people we imprison compared with other developed nations, because America has vastly more violent inmates who kill or maim with guns, he writes.
Mangual notes that in 2018, Germany, England and Wales collectively had 3,197 homicides spread out over 142.2 million people, a rate of 2.24 per 100,000. That same year, there were a combined 337 killings among just 472,604 people in 11 inner city areas of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit and St. Louis — a rate of 71.3 per 100,000.
“This gap in homicide victimization rates goes a long way towards explaining America’s comparatively higher incarceration rate, particularly given the fact that many of the countries we are unfavorably compared to respond equally punitively to homicide convicts, who constitute a significant slice of our prison population, ” he writes.
Weapons offences, he adds, “account for similar percentages of the UK’s and US’s adult prison populations, but with somewhere in the range of 400 million firearms in the US compared to just 4 million in the UK, the US simply has a greater number of gun offenders.”
He also pushes back on the theory that our prison population is overly bloated with minor drug-use offenders being unfairly held behind bars.
“Despite the widely held belief that incarceration is driven by the drug war, just 14.1 percent of state prisoners were incarcerated primarily for a drug offense, and the vast majority of them were primarily for trafficking, as opposed to possession — an offense category that constitutes less than 4 percent of the state prison population.”
Even that 4 percent includes inmates who likely committed more serious crimes but pleaded guilty to lesser charges such as drug possession, he argues.
In fact, he writes, the US justice system is actually lenient towards the worst offenders.
According to a 2017 study on violent crime in Chicago, “on average, someone arrested for a homicide or shooting had nearly 12 prior arrests. Almost 20 percent of Chicago shooters and killers had more than 20 priors.” He cites a 2018 federal report that says 30 percent of convicted murderers and 64 percent of convicted rapists/sexual assailants nationwide were out in less than 10 years.
“Contrary to the widespread belief that we regularly lock offenders away and throw away the key … the average state prisoner serves just 44 percent of his sentence before he is released.”
And what about the epidemic of police violence?
It’s not happening, Mangual claims.
He’s not discounting the horror of cops who kill, and he points to the shocking clips of a Minnesota cop shooting Philando Castile in 2016 during a traffic stop and of a New York officer subduing Eric Garner in 2014 during an arrest for selling cigarettes.
“It would be hard for anyone to watch those videos and not be disturbed by the sounds of men gasping for what would turn out to be their final breaths — and in the case of Castile, to watch a man die in front of a four- year-old child, who will have to deal with the trauma of having witnessed something even battle-hardened soldiers struggle to live with.”
But these and other videos of cop abuse contributed “to the increasingly widespread sense that police uses of force were far more common than they actually were.” Actually, he writes, such violence is rare.
He points to a 2018 study in which a team of doctors and a criminologist looked at injuries to suspects during arrests.
“The study analyzed more than 1 million calls for service, which resulted in more than 114,000 criminal arrests by officers in three midsized police departments — one in North Carolina, one in Arizona, and one in Louisiana,” he writes.
“Police officers used physical force in just 1 in every 128 of those arrests, meaning that more than 99 percent of those arrests were completed without the use of any force whatsoever. Moreover, based on expert medical examinations of the medical records of arrestees, the study went on to find that 98 percent of the suspects subjected to physical force ‘sustained no or mild injury.’”
Mangual also argues that eliminating cash bail for suspects arrested for non-violent crimes has been a mistake in states like New York, which keeps letting more dangerous criminals back out on the street.
Instead, we should use a risk-evaluating formula — rather than weighing up the seriousness of a charge or trying to reduce the prison population — when figuring out who should get bail and who should be denied.
“A fairer and more accurate way for judges to assess a given defendant’s risk is through a validated algorithmic risk assessment tool (RAT), which calculates risk based on attaching weights to a variety of factors like criminal history and age,” he writes. In other words, those who are older, have a job and/or ties to the community, and have no violent criminal history should be given more leniency when deciding bail.
“A recent study by the Center for Court Innovation illustrated the predictive accuracy of such a tool — even across racial groups, which is a crucial criterion, given the opposition of some reformers who claim that racial bias is built into the algorithms.”
“People of good will certainly disagree about the extent to which our criminal justice system [is] flawed, and they can disagree about how to go about improving that system,” he writes.
But the idea that it “regularly brutalizes disfavored groups via overly draconian sentences and unjustifiably violent policing is nothing short of defamatory.”