The Presence of the Law – High Crime Areas

By Michael Alvarez, JD Class of 2016

My passion for empowering societal change was one of the motivations for me to attend law school.  My father moved to Phoenix and became a paralegal after he was laid off from his job in a Southern Arizona mine.  My mother came from a Midwestern family that through hard work and skill managed to move up the class ranks.  I grew up in the Maryvale neighborhood of West Phoenix, where over half of the population attains less than a high school diploma.[1]

Why is any of this important? It is important because I got the very best seat at the table.  I was caught between two races and two economic classes.  I attended schools and lived in areas of the community that people had forgotten about.  They were the dirty or scary parts of town, but it was my home.

But I’ve also had the advantage of being able to travel the world with my mother’s family, and during holidays and weekends experience a life that many of the people I grew up with would never be able to.  I experienced and observed the opinions and biases of each group.  I was able to observe the opinions these groups have of each other.  I think that if an attorney can understand the life circumstances of any client that were to walk through the door, that attorney will be able to see a client’s case in many different mindsets, ultimately unlocking a tactical advantage.

Why is there more police presence in certain areas?

Hot Spot Policing is a strategy many police departments use in order to cure crime in specific geographical locations.  For most large urban cities, crime is concentrated in a small group of locations.  This is now easier to test and account for because of an increased use of the science of crime mapping by most urban police forces. A police department in a city that uses such a program would concentrate a larger number of law enforcement officers in areas that are seen to have higher crime.  This seems to serve the policy goal of fighting crime and satisfying the State’s legitimate interest in public safety.

These pockets of high crime overwhelmingly coincide with lower income areas of most cities, and neighborhoods with higher minority populations.[2]  For police and prosecutors alike, the majority of the crimes and cases they will have to work on come from these areas. Low-income populations and minorities are also groups that have commonly cited distrust of the government, especially law enforcement.[3]

Attorneys working in the criminal sector must be knowledgeable in this area.  They must understand the issues involved in these types of cases because the majority of the cases that populate the criminal justice system come from these areas and neighborhoods. Understanding these issues will ultimately make better tactical lawyers that also have a deeper understanding of the human side of the law.

What challenges arise when working on a case in a high crime area?

These forms of policing can often exacerbate the neighborhood’s negative opinion of law enforcement and professionals in the legal system.  More times than not the police-citizen relationship in these communities becomes adversarial. The distrust of authority and police is often passed down in families that have experienced incarceration.[4]  These sentiments are also spread through the ranks of teenagers at a time when friends and peers have the most impact on building social perception.[5]  The crime maps continue to show higher amounts of crime in these higher patrolled areas.  Could this possibly be a cyclical approach to justice in these neighborhoods? It is a problem that will continue to occur just because of the nature of the relationship between citizens of these hot spot communities and law enforcement?

Besides the obvious hurdles law enforcement must face when investigating crimes in these neighborhoods, there are also serious ramifications in a professional legal context.  Criminal justice professionals such as prosecutors and defense attorneys will be faced with unique situations when dealing with a case in communities that distrust law enforcement and the government.  These hurdles could seriously hinder an effective prosecution or defense at every step of the adjudication process.

Criminal Prosecutor

Prosecutors will be faced with trying to find qualified witnesses who would be willing to testify or offer information to help build a criminal case.  In some communities, just talking to government officials is a bad idea and can be evidence to other residents in the community that the witness has somehow sold out or that his allegiances now lie somewhere else.  Without such valuable witnesses, a prosecutor’s case can evaporate.

In addition to distrust of the criminal justice system, economic factors can also lead to hardships for witnesses and a severely weakened case for a prosecutor.  For example, if a prosecutor’s only witnesses to a convenience store robbery were the owner of the store and a high school student who works there, it could make it too difficult for the witnesses to effectively assist the prosecutor.  If the owner of the convenience store has not missed a day of work in three years and is the sole provider for his family, he may be disinterested in helping in any prosecution.  He barely makes enough money as it is now, and taking time off for pre trial interviews and possibly testifying at a future trial may actually cause him greater financial harm than the total sum he lost in the robbery.  The prosecutor may continue on with the case in the best interests of society, but his or her case may be severely weakened by the loss of a key witness.

The high school student who witnesses the robbery may have friends and family that tell him to avoid being involved in any type of investigation.  The student would have to miss school and if he lives a long distance from the courthouse he may not even be able to commute.  Testifying in a case could have negative implications for his education and undue hardship on his family if they need to offer transportation.

Criminal Defense

Compared to the hurdles prosecutors face in these types of cases, the modern criminal defense attorney faces even more demanding challenges.  In comparison, these challenges may prove more costly since they could prove to be insurmountable and impact the defendant’s liberty interests.

Some witnesses may be scared to be implicated in crimes themselves or fear that if they have a criminal past, it may come out at trial as impeachment evidence. This means some competent witnesses that possess valuable information may be afraid to offer their testimony because of their overall opinions and fears of the criminal justice system.  If a witness possesses exculpatory evidence, but is fearful or distrusting of the criminal justice system, the defendant’s case may be negatively impacted.

There are also different societal norms in neighborhoods with higher crime.  Some acts committed in these neighborhoods may be seen as acceptable or a normal way of life within the community.  Because of the distrust of the criminal justice system, neighborhoods may simply accept that crime is an everyday occurrence in life.  Witnesses may not understand the severity of the charges or not understand the impact that their testimony would provide to the defendants case.

The largest hurdle faced by criminal defense attorneys is the need to paint the defendant in a way that best creates empathy for the defendant.  The majority of criminal cases arise in different neighborhoods than the ones that the average juror lives in or even has ever been to.  Jury selection lends itself to selecting people that have the economic stability needed to serve on a jury.[6]  For example, the convenience store owner who is the only employee of his business would probably never be able to serve on a jury due to the negative economic impact it would have on his life.

Usually higher-paying, stable jobs offer paid time for jury service, and juries composed of individuals from disparate backgrounds than the defendants themselves.

The largest negative impact of a jury that does not understand the defendant’s economic and social background is the failure to effectively listen to and understand mitigation evidence in a capital case.  When deciding whether a defendant should live or die for his or her crimes, the jury must be able to effectively look at these mitigating circumstances.  This could prove to be very hard when the jury is made up of people who have never been in similar situations or simply grew up differently.  When a criminal defendant and the jury that will decide his fate are drastically different, empathy may fly out the window.

Jurors that live and work in communities that have little crime may also be biased in their decisions to convict.  They may convict the crime and not the defendant.  This means that they may fear that if crime is not stopped in bad areas of the city, it may spread to areas of the city much closer to home.  A jury may simply convict out of pure fear of crime and criminals or to show that crime is not accepted in their society.

Knowing these problems and perspectives will help attorneys think about cases in traditionally disadvantaged communities differently.  Providing different mindsets ultimately makes lawyers more tactical and creative when crafting cases that involve some of these situations.

[1] http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Maryvale-Phoenix-AZ.html

[2] http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/introguidecrimeanalysismapping.pdf

[3] http://www.gallup.com/poll/175088/gallup-review-black-white-attitudes-toward-police.aspx?utm_source=tagrss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_reader=feedly

[4] http://www.nij.gov/journals/263/Pages/neighborhood-crime.aspx

[5] http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v5n1/manuscripts/sun.pdf

[6] http://www.uh.edu/~jlehman2/papers/lehmann_smith_jurycomposition.pdf

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