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Crime & Punishment

The flaws in Jim Strickland’s tough-on-crime plan.

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To the untrained ear, Memphis mayoral candidate Jim Strickland's plan to reduce crime seems reasonable.

"We need to have zero tolerance for violent crime," said the Memphis City Council member during a debate last month.

But when he elaborates, he stumbles and disappoints.

"And when I say that, I mean right now, if a juvenile commits a violent act on another human being, they are not automatically taken down to juvenile court," he continued. "That's not zero tolerance. That's the exact opposite. They need to be taken down to juvenile court."

With that statement, Strickland ignores the mountains of research about young minds and the yawning school-to-prison pipeline.

He brushes away this nation's shameful history of policing black bodies and, worst of all, overlooks recent history at Shelby County Juvenile Court, which treats black children more harshly than white kids.

His rhetoric isn't quite a dog whistle, but it's pandering to our basest instincts.

In theory, a civilized society acknowledges that children and teens, their developing brains incapable of consistent impulse control, deserve more care and compassion than adults.

But in practice, the adult instinct to protect children crumbles under the weight of racial stereotypes. In fact, a 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association found that police officers surveyed saw black boys as 4.5 years older than they were and less innocent.

The most recent context for Strickland's tough-on–crime stance is a handful of videotaped brawls of black "teen mobs," as branded by local media. One cell phone video captured an attack at an East Memphis Kroger grocery store (read: supposed to be safe). Another video showed a fight at the once-highly regarded White Station High (read: where fights aren't supposed to happen).

Through this lens, Strickland's pleas to enforce the curfew laws sound like smart public policy.

But the relevant context takes a wider view of history, stretching back to Reconstruction and the birth of the nation's Jim Crow curfew laws, designed to restrict the movement of formerly enslaved men and women.

Follow Strickland's plan to its logical conclusion in a predominantly black city, and juvenile court will overflow with children whose chief mistake was knuckling up at school or in their neighborhoods.

Private schools, which house the overwhelming majority of the city's white school-age children, can shield their students' bad behavior from the public eye.

But for public school students, most of whom in Memphis are black, the hammer of indiscriminate zero tolerance policies falls hard.

According to a recently released report on school suspensions and expulsions in Southern states, researchers found that "[B]lacks were 23 percent of students in school districts across the state [of Tennessee], but comprised 58 percent of suspensions and 71 percent of expulsions."

Factor in the local evidence, and Strickland's crime-fighting strategy goes from ill-advised to indefensible.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) determined that Shelby County Juvenile Court treats black children more harshly than white children.

"Black children are more likely to be detained pre-adjudication, less likely to receive warnings and lesser sanctions, and more likely to be transferred to criminal court," wrote DOJ civil rights investigators in a scathing report.

Just this July, the federal monitor reported that the court has shown a "serious lack of progress" in reducing disproportionate minority contact. "Although the overall number of youth held in secure detention has decreased, a racial gap remains and, in fact, has increased, and race still matters once all other factors are considered," the monitor wrote.

It gets worse: The Memphis metro area has the nation's highest rate of "disconnected youth," defined as people between the ages of 16 and 24 who aren't in school or employed.

The burden of a criminal record makes residents virtually unemployable and ineligible for many college loans, decimating their chances to build wealth and, in doing so, gain true freedom.

Flawed criminal justice policies have disastrous results for communities of color. Strickland, the only white mayoral candidate with a chance to win, should know this.

He has time to amend his platform before the October election, although a more nuanced approach may alienate his Poplar-corridor base (read: mostly white and more affluent than the rest of the city).

But an informed, evidence-based crime-fighting plan is the responsible thing to do — for Memphis' children and the city's future.

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