Philadelphia Takes Proactive Tack with Parolees
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An increase in violent crime this summer has put Philadelphia on track to have its highest murder rate in a decade. That has prompted the police and politicians there to look for new ways to combat crime, including one approach that hasn't been tried before. They're trying to identify potential murderers using past criminal records.
Brad Linder reports.
BRAD LINDER: Last year, 380 people were murdered in Philadelphia and that number's headed even higher this year. Local leaders are trying everything they can think of to bring down the homicide rate. The police department's taken officers off of desk duty and put them on the street. And Mayor John Street gave a rare television address in July, urging young people to put down their guns. Afterward, he told reporters the city is investing heavily in education and crime prevention programs.
Mr. JOHN STREET (Mayor, Philadelphia): We will never be able to arrest our way Out of this problem. A huge amount of our resources have been committed to prevention. We have between probably 42,000, 45,000 children that are in after-school programs. I mean, there are huge resources that go into prevention.
LINDER: After-school programs for low-income kids may be one thing, but how do you provide all the city's troubled adults with preventive measures like job training, medical help and psychiatric treatment? You don't, says Larry Sherman, head of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, you use modern data mining to identify those who are the highest risk - potential murderers, as he recently explained at city hall.
Mr. LARRY SHERMAN (University of Pennsylvania): It's the question of the needle in the haystack. A lot of the solutions to the homicide problem in Philadelphia that have been proposed essentially focused on the whole haystack, on the theory that we'll equally expose the needles to this program if we give it to the whole city. And the problem with that is, by the time you've watered down a program across the entire city or even across all the offenders on probation, there's a pretty thin rule. There's not a whole lot that you would think would actually stop somebody from committing homicide.
LINDER: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the city's probation department are working together on a million dollar pilot program to identify the needles. They're starting with the premise that most people who commit murder have been arrested before for lesser crimes.
Penn statistician Richard Burke has examined data on half a million Philadelphians who've had contact with the probation department in the last 35 years. He found there are just a handful of key indicators that someone may become a killer in the future.
Mr. RICHARD BURKE (University of Pennsylvania): Individuals who'd get in trouble early in their lives and are still young by the time to come to the attention of probation are high risk.
LINDER: So if you commit a violent crime at age 15, you're more likely to become a murderer than if you commit the same crime at age 25. And you're also a higher risk if your crime is against people rather than property.
Mr. BURKE: Difficulties with drugs, use of a gun - these are all important predictors. And of course, the gangbuster predictor always is male versus female. We're talking here about young men, not young women.
LINDER: Using Burke's model, the city can narrow down a pool of 50,000 people on probation and focus on the few hundred who are most likely to commit a murder in the future unless they receive help.
On Wednesday mornings, probation officials meet with academic researchers to discuss people who have already been flagged and figure out ways to help them. Janet McHale supervises adult probation. She introduces the case of a 19-year-old who's been in trouble with the law since she was 15.
Ms. JANET McHALE (Probation Officer): At the age of 17 again, he was arrested for possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.
LINDER: But there's another side to his story, one that might not have been uncovered if his case hadn't been singled out by this statistical model and he hadn't been interviewed by a Penn researcher. Social worker Tim Ackerson discovered the man's mother went to prison when he was 9 years old.
Mr. TIM ACKERSON (Social Worker): He's been depressed for the past 10 years and can't remember when he didn't feel that way. In 2003, he saw his friend shot and killed in front of him, and he developed PTSD symptoms, which continue to this time. He often stays awake until daytime because he doesn't wanna fall asleep at night and dream.
LINDER: By the end of the meeting, probation officials agreed to get this man and others like him into therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. But not every case will be handled by committee. The city plans to hire four new probation officers to work exclusively on homicide prevention. They'll have small caseloads of 15 probationers instead of the typical 100 to 150.
Kevin Reynolds is assistant director of Philadelphia's probation department. He says the new officers will be much more involved in the lives of their charges.
Mr. KEVIN REYNOLDS (Probation Officer): They should know them, they should know their family, they should know their community. They'll go in to this offender's neighborhood. Everybody gotta guarantee, everybody's gonna know who Johnny's probation officer is in that neighborhood because he's gonna be around enough and people are gonna say he's doing good, he's doing bad. He's hanging out with the wrong guy, he's doing the right.
LINDER: It may be a while before the city knows whether its focus on high-risk probationers brings down the murder rate. But those involved in the program says at the very least, they're providing therapy, drug treatment and job training to people who need them.
For NPR News, I'm Brad Linder.