North Carolina Gets Religion and Uses Speech to Lower Crime

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The Ohio court of appeals (PDF) recently held that a trial judge did not violate the First Amendment rights of a juvenile offender when he ordered the young man to write a 1,000-word essay on why racism is wrong. According to the First Amendment Center, the case dealt with a racially charged fight that began when one high school student started hurling racial slurs at another. The court rejected the First Amendment argument that compelling the juvenile offender to write an essay about racism amounted to “thought control,” infringing on his constitutional rights.

North Carolina has taken the issue of “compelled speech,” as a way to reduce criminal activity, to a whole new level. In Raleigh, North Carolina law enforcement agencies joined together to combat gang violence and drug crime, replicating a highly successful strategy first launched in High Point, North Carolina. The initiative, now called Project Safe Neighborhoods, sought to increase communication between police, community, and gang members as a method to reduce violence.

The impact of the program was profound. Evaluations of the High Point strategy revealed that the drug market vanished overnight. Three years after the High Point intervention, reductions in violent crime dropped 41%. Most importantly, at the time of the last formal evaluation in 2009, there had not been a homicide within the targeted area in five years. In Raleigh, two hundred days after the initial intervention, violent crime in the area was down 42% (David M. Kennedy, Deterrence and Crime Prevention 158, 162 (2009)).

Speech was the key tool used to reduce the violence. Central to the strategy was a series of discussions between police and community members, addressing critical misunderstandings that prevented the reduction of violent crime in the past. As the police listened to community members, they began to understand that arrests and street stops were not seen by the community as well intentioned police work. Instead, the police realized that community members often viewed stop and arrest tactics through a powerful racial and historical lens, understanding that the law enforcement methods were frequently considered a form of oppression.

In turn, community members recognized that their mistrust and lack of communication with the police, regarding the violence in their neighborhood, was read by both law enforcement officials and gang members as tolerance and support of the violence (David M. Kennedy, Deterrence and Crime Prevention 149 (2009)).

The key operational moment in the strategy was a “call-in.” The “call-in” was an in person meeting at which law enforcement officials and community members spoke with a unified voice in front of gang members and their probation officers.The message was clear: gang violence was severely hurting the community and must end. By speaking in a unified voice, the police and community members articulated a standard of behavior that the gang members subsequently followed.

While the power of speech to reduce crime is remarkable, these successful programs often have a religious element to them. In High Point, for example, the local pastor often led and hosted the meetings. When a religious element is involved, courts have been far from clear on the issue of compelled speech and mandatory participation in certain programs as a form of criminal sentencing. Some courts have upheld a plaintiff’s right to not participate in court programs that had an objectionable religious component. SeeWarner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation, 827 F. Supp. 261 (S.D. N.Y. 1993) (dealing with an Alcoholics Anonymous program). Yet another New York court, also dealing with an Alcoholics Anonymous program, remarked that not every state action implicating religion is invalid if one or a few citizens find it offensive. SeeBoyd v. Coughlin, 914 F. Supp. 828 (N.D. N.Y. 1996) (finding that relentless and all-pervasive attempt to exclude religion from every aspect of public life could itself become inconsistent with the Constitution).

Let’s hope that if parolees participating in these programs bring suit against North Carolina, courts follow the rationale laid out in the Boyd case. Speech, even with a hint of religion, is just too powerful a tool not to be used freely.

Posted by Benjamin K. Kleinman on Sun. October 14, 2012 7:38 AM
Categories: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech

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