Crack cocaine offenders may get early release; neighborhoods hope to avoid reentry problems
It isn't often that a Phi Beta Kappa grad nearly loses his life because he insists on getting a close-up look at the crack cocaine trade. Such was the experience of Bruce A. Jacobs, who researched the crack phenomenon on St. Louis' north side when he was in the criminology department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Jacobs' research underscores how cheap life was on some St. Louis streets during the crack era, the drug scourge of the inner cities during the 1980s and 1990s. His work also offers a cautionary tale of heading off trouble when the federal government returns some of those inmates to the streets later this year ahead of their release dates.
Late last month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission announced that it wanted to ease sentences for some inmates convicted of crack offenses by retroactively subjecting them to new guidelines that would shorten their sentences as part of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Many liberal federal lawmakers, such as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., favor making the rule retroactive while some conservatives oppose the move. Some north side aldermen and residents think the early release plan will work if inmates are given sufficient support services. The change would affect about 12,000 inmates, including 196 from the St. Louis area.
The commission's move is part of an effort to equalize punishment for those convicted of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. In the absence of intervention by Congress, the gradual release of a majority of them could start as early as November.
Jacobs is now a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In the 1980s, when the sale and use of crack was widespread, Jacobs decided to study the problem from the inside out. He ventured into some of the least safe and most impoverished neighborhoods, interviewing street-level dealers and witnessing drug transactions. As if that weren't risky enough, he eventually found himself staring at the barrel of a revolver. He remembers an irritated dealer pointing the gun and threatening to "blow your mother------ head off" unless Jacobs produced some cash. Luckily, the encounter cost the professor $50 instead of his life.
Recognizing the kind of violence that Jacobs and others have faced, District Judge Patti B. Saris of Massachusetts, chair of the Sentencing Commission, acknowledged the potential dangers of early release. She said in a statement last week, "The commission is aware of concern that today's actions may negatively impact public safety. However, every potential offender must have his or her case considered by a federal district court judge in accordance with the commission's policy statement, and with careful thought given to the offender's potential risk to public safety."
Doug Burris, chief probation officer for Eastern Missouri, said the federal parole system will review an inmate's records, including prison records, and decide whether release is appropriate.
"This is an outstanding policy. It costs over $28,000 a year to house one individual in a federal prison. It costs less for me to send my daughter to a state college. If you give people (inmates who might be released) hope and help, they're going to make it in the community. We've proven that in this district and other districts."
Even with early releases, the Sentencing Commission says the average sentence for the affected inmates would remain about 10 years. Releasing them early, it adds, would result in a savings of over $200 million in the first five years.
Burris puts the U.S. prison population in perspective by noting that China has three times the population of the United States, but the United States has 500,000 more people behind bars. Burris adds that one Department of Justice report warns that unless American incarceration patterns and rates change, one out of every three African-American males will serve a prison term.
"What this has done has devastated the inner city in terms of the number of people incarcerated," he said.
Effects Linger From Crack Epidemic
Although the crack phenomenon has ended, its impact lingers in many poor neighborhoods, said Beth Huebner, an associate professor and director of graduate programs in the Department of Criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"It was just a horrible impact, families growing up in violent environments, lots of poverty, a gang and gun culture that rose during that time. We still see it today, but it was heightened during that crack epidemic."
Adrian Brown, 45, brings up that topic as he sits on the edge of a north side parking lot filled with about a dozen black hearses and funeral cars. As he uses a plastic fork to dig into a box of Chinese food, Brown shakes his head over living in a neighborhood where he says street violence and death have been common over the years, particularly during what became known as the crack era.
"It made us our worst enemy, and that's why so many of us end over there," he says, pointing across the street to the Ronald L. Jones Funeral Chapels, at East Fair and West Florissant avenues.
As he finishes his early afternoon meal, Brown rises and looks up the empty, hot street to see if his bus is in sight. "I'm young but I can remember when crack was the big problem around here. It was everywhere -- girls walking around selling their butts for $5. Even Ray Charles could see this stuff was wrong and he didn't have no eyes."
Brown lives in the O'Fallon neighborhood in the 21st Ward, represented by Alderman Antonio French, a Democrat. Over the years, French (right), who is in his 40s, has been outspoken about the violence, taking to the streets to highlight and denounce crime and search for new ideas to curb it. His latest move involves installing surveillance cameras on some street corners, a notion that has drawn praise from neighborhood residents and support from St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom.
French doesn't think the old crack/powder cocaine sentencing policies were fair. He thinks inmates can be reintroduced to communities and succeed if given proper support.
Huebner, the UMSL professor, agrees. She says some distinctions need to be made about that prison population.
"Most of them didn't have a violent history," she said. "Most of them need services that we can provide better in the community. It's difficult to provide treatment services in prison because it's not a therapeutic environment. In the community, where people have support from their family, when they have a job and people around them that are helping, they do much better in treatment."
Support Systems Have Improved
In the past decade or so, Huebner said, the prison system has begun to do a better job helping inmates re-enter society. She points to several services, including transitional housing and efforts to help inmates seek and find work.
French adds that the north side has suffered from lack of other services, including recreation, to give young people more productive and healthier ways to occupy their time and steer clear of drugs and crime. By early next year, he expects some of that to change with the opening of a $22 million recreation complex in O'Fallon Park, the city's second largest park, which is in his ward.
Another key to helping returning inmates and young men in general, French said, is employment. His argument is reinforced by Jacobs, the criminologist, who wrote a book about drugs in St. Louis, "Dealing Crack." Jacobs said nobody got rich peddling crack, but his research showed that some north side residents felt that selling it was a logical option because it required few skills, little or no start-up capital and no technical training.
"They did it for money, easy money," says Jacobs. "For folks who were marginally employable and didn't have many marketable skills, selling crack offered a viable economic option."
As if echoing French's arguments about the relation between the absence of jobs and the rise of illegal activities, such as drugs, Jacobs noted that during the late 1990s, when the economy improved, even inner-city residents who were only marginally employable were able to fine legitimate work.
French adds that current violence, particularly the murder rate, is not nearly as high as it was during the widespread crack epidemic during the 1980s and 1990s. Last year, St. Louis had 144 murders. The highest murder rate for any year during the 1980s was 265; the highest number of killings for any year during the 1990s was 267.
"Neighborhoods were devastated" by crack, French said. "Not only did drugs have a devastating effect on lives, the activity over here was so violent, so much more criminal activity was going on, that it ran the remaining middle-class African-American population out of north St. Louis."
The most recent Census report shows that the flight of blacks continues not only from the north side but from the city itself. The movement of blacks is reflected in a population drop in the city of 16,000 black children younger than 18 from 2000 to 2010. At least part of that 24 percent dip is the movement of black families to north St. Louis County.
One person who has lived through the good times and the bad in the O'Fallon neighborhood and hopes to witness its revival is Shirley Williams, 70. Her family moved to her current home when John F. Kennedy was president. Her mother, who is 90, lives on the second floor of the family's brick home. She says the neighborhood lost stability in part because some parents didn't ask enough questions about whether their children were involved in illegal activities, such as peddling crack.
"Their children would come in with new clothes, new shoes and the parents wouldn't even ask where the child got the money to buy them," she said.
Her block is stable, with plenty of owner-occupied homes, many with trimmed lawns and flowers out front. She recalled the neighborhood as a place of "people making middle-class salaries (who) didn't even think about drugs."
Then came problems in the 1980s and 1990s. "The worst change involved homeowners moving out and renting property to people who weren't really investigated enough. People came in who didn't have allegiance to the neighborhood or they harbored people who had dealings with the law. That's when the neighborhood started to change."
Will the cameras that French is installing make a difference?
"Oh, God, yes. If you go to 6th (police) District meetings, they will tell you they have only 16 officers available at night. No way they can see everything. So the cameras will help police keep watch on what is going on."
Mike Nicholson, a federal parole officer, remembers the drug epidemic when he was then a city police officer.
"The problem led people to neglect their families," he said. "Addicts can't keep steady jobs, but they still have that habit and they start doing whatever they think they need to do to get that money, whether it's prostitution, stealing or robbing or selling the same stuff that they're using."
He added that some former inmates tell him "prison teaches them to be better crooks and slicker, especially those who don't want to change."
But the good news, he said, is "a lot of them do want to change. Being in prison has taught a lot of them the structure that they never had."
Huebner, the UMSL criminologist, also embraces relatively new thinking about treating drugs and gun violence as public-health issues.
"Many people say we need to take two steps backward and look at factors that led to the high crime rate. These are things like gangs, a poor education system, lots of poverty in St. Louis. So as far as this being a public-health issue, I completely agree. Police are obviously very important, but we need to see if there are factors and things that we can change in the city and prevent crime in the first place."
Contact Beacon staff writer Robert Joiner. Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.