02/08 - Violence in Louisiana

What can be done to curb the violent behavior that causes so much emotional and physical harm in Louisiana?

Students fighting in schools; murder in the streets; domestic violence: acts of brutality are taking a terrible toll in communities across the state. Is viciousness on the rise, or is there just more media coverage? What can be done to curb the violent behavior that causes so much emotional and physical harm in Louisiana? Watch "Violence in Louisiana" on Louisiana Public Square, February 27 at 7 PM.

Panelists:

* State Sen. Julie Quinn [R], Metairie. Sen. Quinn chairs Senate Judiciary A Committee
* Matt Lee, LSU Associate Professor of Sociology and Coordinator, Crime and Policy Evaluation Research Group
* Antonio "Tony" Clayton, Assistant District Attorney, West Baton Rouge Parish
* Shelton Dennis Blunt, President of 100 Black Men, Baton Rouge Chapter

Backgrounder

Scope of problem

* For whatever reasons, compared to other industrialized countries, America is a violent nation. U.S. homicide and incarceration rates are some of the highest in the world. Sadly, within the US, the state that is home to the Murder Capital of the country [two years running] and has the highest rate of incarceration is Louisiana. More people were killed in New Orleans, per capita, than in any other city in the nation in 2007. More people, per 100,000 population, are imprisoned in Louisiana than in any other state.

Types of violence

* For reporting purposes, crimes are typically divided into non-violent and violent categories. The F.B.I. defines violent crime as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. According to the F.B.I.’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s definition, violent crimes involve force or the threat of force.

U.S. Crime Statistics
The South had the smallest regional change in violent crime, according to the most recent F.B.I. data.

* Violent crimes can take many forms. Some violence is defined by the location of its occurrence. School and workplace violence are two examples. School violence is doubly troubling because it has both immediate and long-term effects on those involved. Cecile Guin directs the LSU Office of Social Service Research and Development. She studies the causes of a wide range of criminal activities. Dr. Guin says, “When you look at the specific types of crimes that happen in schools that perpetuate our violence problem in our society, nine times out of ten, it’s going to be more related to people bullying people; to gang activity; to a kind of meanness or violence over time so that children that are bullied over time don’t grow up very peaceful.” In other words, being a victim at an early age can lead to a pattern of violent behavior.”

* Domestic violence occurs between people who have -- or had -- strong ties to each other. It includes any physical assault, disturbance, stalking, damage to property, and/or threat to person or property perpetrated by current and former dates, spouses, and cohabiting partners. Louisiana ranks third in the nation in the number of women killed by men. This is an indication of how serious the problem of domestic violence is in the state. It’s more common than many think.

* According to Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft, “Most of our violent crimes are one of two things: drug-related or a result of domestic violence.” Martha Forbes, head of the Capital Area Family Violence Intervention Center, says there are only three possible outcomes to domestic violence, “One, the abuser leaves; two, the victim leaves, or three, someone dies.” About a third of Lafayette’s murders in 2007 involved domestic violence.

* Citing national survey data from the U.S. Department of Justice, Forbes says, “On any day, one and a half percent of all women will be physically or sexually abused by their intimate partner or spouse and another one half percent will be stalked by a former partner. In Louisiana, that number is roughly 22,000 to 25,000 women every day.”

* Nationally, violent crimes overall peaked in the early 1990’s. Homicides in New Orleans peaked in 1994 with 421 dead – the highest death toll, per capita, ever for an American city. New Orleans homicides continued to decline through the 1990’s, but by 2004 the number was up to 265. By August 2005, there already were 192 murders in the Crescent City. In 2007, two and a half years after hurricane Katrina decimated the city’s population, New Orleans is again the Murder Capital of the nation.
* For 2007, crime data in the rest of the state is a mixed bag. Except for homicides, Shreveport and Baton Rouge both had reductions in violent crimes. For January through June 2007, Lafayette had an 8 percent rise in violent crime, compared to the same period in 2006.

Causes
Social

* LSU’s Cecile Guin attributes Louisiana’s traditionally high ranking in violence, in part, to several underlying social issues: poverty, access to firearms, lack of education, poor health and unemployment. Louisiana typically ranks 49th or 50th in the nation in poverty, education and healthcare.

* Like most states, Louisiana does not require a permit to own a handgun, nor does it require a background check. Guns are the weapon of choice in a large number of homicides and some people favor stronger gun control laws. Holley Galland, a physician who works with children in public schools, thinks licenses should be required. “Then,” she says, “you could prosecute more effectively and more clearly, because, if you don’t have a license, you shouldn’t be having that particular lethal weapon on your hands.”
* Lafayette Police Chief Craft thinks there are sufficient laws on the books now. He says, “Passing a new law now is not going to help stem the flow. Most of these people in possession of these firearms did not acquire them legally in the first place.”

Drugs are also a major factor in violent criminal activity. Drug deals gone bad and disputes over territory can lead to death beyond the circle of those involved in the drug culture. Bullets fired by dealers or buyers often find their way to innocent by-standers. In some locales, a culture of violence has developed. Drug money, a lack of economic opportunity and public apathy, fuel a cycle violent behavior.

With a possible recession looming, some are worried that the general downward trend in crime will be reversed.

Media
The film, television and music industries have been blamed by some for contributing to the high level for violence in America. In the past few years, watchdog groups have complained that the video game industry, in particular, has influenced children’s behavior in negative ways. The “2005 Report Card” of the National Institute on Media and the Family claims that only 40% of parents understand all of the video game rating symbols. About one quarter said they allow their children to buy games rated M [Mature]. M-rated games are intended for ages 17 and older because they contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language. The Report Card asserted that games in 2004 were on average more violent, contained more sexual content, and had more profanity compared to games from the late 1990s.

A 2004 survey of middle school students by the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media found that about 37% of games that boys frequently played and 11% of games that girls frequently played were “violent” or “very violent” based on content descriptors for those games. The M-rated Grand Theft Auto [GTA] games were listed as the boys’ favorite and the girls’ second favorite. GTA games have been accused of glorifying carjackings and other criminal acts.

During the 2006 legislative session, Rep. Roy Burrell (D), Shreveport, introduced a bill intended to ban the sale of violent video games to minors [HB 1331]. The bill passed Louisiana's House and Senate unanimously and was signed by governor Blanco. In November, Judge James Brady, Federal District Court, Baton Rouge, ordered a permanent injunction halting the implementation of the statute, citing constitutional grounds.

Solutions
Most experts believe that the key to reducing crime is early intervention. Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft says, “If you can get those people when they’re young and first starting off on a life of crime and change their direction, you have some success.”

LSU’s Cecile Guin agrees. She says, “When you look at the specific types of crimes that happen in schools that perpetuates our violence problem in our society; nine times out of ten, it’s going to be more related to people bullying people; to gang activity; to a kind of meanness.”

When Lafayette high school violence spiked in the fall of 2007, school officials recruited students like Lauren Noel to be “ambassadors” in a violence prevention program.
Noel explains, “Rachel’s Challenge is an organization where students can get involved and create an atmosphere of kindness for all, so that everyone feels accepted and no one feels that they don’t have any friends or that they don’t have a place in the school.”

Similar efforts to make schools safer exist in many communities across Louisiana. Shreveport has begun an initiative to make its streets safer. “T-BONE -- Taking Back Our Neighborhoods Everyday” – pairs police officers with property standards inspector in an effort to improve quality of life for residents. Operation “Closed Market” has put additional police in Shreveport’s high crime areas. The Baton Rouge Police Department is planning to install surveillance cameras in high crime areas.

School programs and additional policing are tools society can use to combat violence, but according to Police Chief Jim Craft, no amount of effort will ever eliminate it.

“There is a certain part of the criminal population that is always going to be committing crimes,” he says.”Those are the people you want to focus on and lock up before the end up taking a life or committing a very serious crime that affects somebody for the rest of their life.

Cecile Guin says she is “ … a huge proponent of identifying violent criminals and using our resources to get them in jail and don’t let them out -- but there is definitely a different way to handle other types of criminals and we’re not doing it in this state.” In proposing alternatives to imprisonment for some non-violent criminals, Guin alludes to another somber statistic Louisiana can lay sole claim to: the highest rate of incarceration in the U.S.

Whatever the solution is to reducing crime, it’s unlikely to come from law enforcement or the criminal justice system. Most of those working in the field say the solution has to come from parents, schools, churches and the communities themselves.

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