In Defense of Incarceration: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part II

Jill Leovy has written an astonishing book in ways that I don’t think many have appreciated. Reviewers commonly noted that Leovy brought to light an under-recognized aspect of law enforcement. She emphasizes the importance of under-enforcement in poor segregated neighborhoods, low homicide solve rates in particular, when so much public attention—and anger—has been directed at over-enforcement of low-level drug and property crimes and public-order offenses. Yet, what Leovy is really doing in Ghettoside is building a moral case for incarceration.

(Since reviewing Part I, I have read chapters 10-17. This post will cover only this section of the book, which for convenience I’m labeling Part II.)

In Part II, Leovy takes care of a lot of plot. Bryant Tennelle goes about his daily life as a sheltered, artsy but not bookish teenager. A fateful driver’s license suspension places him in the orbit of neighborhood kids in Watts, who teach him the ways of the street. Bryant begins wearing a hat bearing the Houston Astros logo, a local gang insignia. He wants to attract girls, which he does, but he also attracts the attention of rival gangs. His dad, Wally Sr., an LAPD homicide detective, tries to corrall and guide his son but Bryant is 18 at the time of his death and becoming his own man. The death of Bryant is heartbreaking. I bawled when Wally Sr holds the brain-splattered hat of his dead son. Leovy takes us to the emergency room, where a stoic Wally Sr. tries to make everyone comfortable as his son lies dying on the operating table. The Tenelle case is bounced around and finally lands in Southeast Homicide Bureau, where it falls to Leovy’s cast of heroes. More than six months after Bryant’s death, Skaggs and fellow detectives break the case wide open, they discover the identity of the perpetrator, they interrogate him and get him to confess, and they inform Wally Sr. The killer is 16-year-old Devin Davis, a kid, who wanted to impress fellow gang-members, “to be a person everyone was just cool with” (207). On February 19, 2008, the district attorney charges Davis and another black male, Derrick Starks, who supplied the gun, with the murder of Bryant Tennelle.

But for all its plot, Part II is no less driven by a philosophical idea about the purpose of the state and criminal prosecution than the early, densely historical and theoretical chapters. Once again, Leovy dazzles with her erudite, elegant understanding of history and the law.

Sometimes, though, I wondered whether Leovy was being a bit sneaky, in the way cops can be, when they want to raise inconvenient facts for skeptics of police efficacy and legitimacy. The Tennelle case stalls out for months, until two crucial breaks. Both involve preventive, dragnet policing of the kind Leovy has been critical in earlier chapters and in her public speaking on the book.

In the first, a gang patrol officer conducts what is known as a pretextual stop on a man whom he spots toss a weed baggie to the side. The cop pats him down and discovers the gun used in the murder. As Leovy says, the cop’s “methods were guaranteed to look like straight harassment to those on the receiving end.” Yet, pretextual or proxy tactics did produce results at least some of the time. For South LA cops, Leovy says, such “proxy justice represented a principled stand against violence. It was like a personalized imposition of martial law.” (both quotes, 141)

Leovy brushes past this last part. Though not endorsing “martial law” by cop fiat, she does seem okay with the technique. Because this scene releases built-up suspense, Leovy at least presents pretextual police work as a vital expedient in a world where cops and prosecutors have to fight for every scrap of justice.

In the second breakthrough, Skaggs trawls the neighborhood around the site of Bryant’s killing and learns of a street fight that took place shortly after. Two kids fought two other kids to avenge Bryant’s death. Perhaps they fought people who knew the killer. Skaggs tracks down a participant who gives him some identifying details. Skaggs punches the info into the infamous California gang database, a cyber-dragnet available to law enforcement agencies statewide. The criteria for membership in the database are dangerously broad, a state auditor recently found, and once you’re in, it’s an arduous legal process to expunge your name. Yet, in Leovy’s narrative, the gang database IDs a 16-year-old probationer who in turns gives up a name—Baby Man. Baby Man is Devin Davis.


But these are ultimately distracting details—at least it’s not clear if Leovy even intends readers to notice the potential problem with these methods, both for the rule of law and for her narrative about the importance of reactive policing. (The gang database serves both proactive and reactive angles, since police can use it to “predict” and solve crimes. Moreover, Skaggs and other detectives interrogate very young suspects without a lawyer present, using a host of tried-and-true deceptive techniques, which, though they worked and brought “justice” to the Tennelles, I found somewhat alarming.)

Ultimately, Leovy uses these chapters to extend the book’s core argument—really, an intervention in the conversation around police reform and, to my surprise, the social purpose of the state’s carceral capacities. In Part I, I understood her central claim to be that low homicide solve rates cause more murder. She was mainly drawing attention to a hugely important but under-emphasized side of police work. But in Part II, she builds an affirmative case for prosecution and, by extension, incarceration. She’s untroubled by the argument so often made by critics of mass incarceration: that the criminal justice system is set up to punish and degrade racial others. Indeed, Leovy builds her affirmative case for incarceration in a very particular way that’s worth teasing apart.

Leovy is not arguing that incarceration will lower all crime rates. She’s not arguing that the purpose of prison is either to rehabilitate or to punish. Rather, she’s arguing that a fundamental cause of high homicide rates among young black men is the state’s failure to prosecute killers. This, in turn, leads her to argue that incarceration is a vital route to imposing the rule of law and the norms of non-violent civility on poor, segregated places like Watts.

As I noted in my review of Part I, this claim runs a real risk of affirming long-running stereotypes about urban black communities as pathologically lawless. But Leovy, certainly aware of this racist school of thought, wants us to grapple with actually existing lawlessness—where the blood feud reigns. The roots of the high-homicide problem are not in culture or pathology. Rather, they are institutional: the state simply does not have a monopoly on legitimate violence because it does not apprehend killers. Further, the state does not prosecute and incarcerate enough killers—and this, Leovy argues, is a key conduit for more civilian violence. Thus, incarcerating the violent few is a moral necessity.

I’ve never encountered this argument put quite like this before—I’m not even sure I’ve seen this argument, full stop. I’m familiar with the claim that swift, certain punishment is the best empirically-proven crime deterrent. But I’ve never seen it applied with such sociological, anthropological, historical rigor to poor segregated neighborhoods. I’m accustomed to more partisan and ideological claims about police and prison: the carceral state must be dismantled because it historically has dehumanized, degraded African Americans and is predicated on anti-blackness; police, prosecutors, and prisons must be unleashed on violent-prone populations and violent felons must be locked away for long periods of time. Etc.

But I’ve never encountered an argument for incarceration that is so steeped in an informed history of white supremacy—the state has long failed to protect African Americans from racist white civilian and white-dominated state violence *and* it continues to fail African Americans by not protecting them from black civilian violence. Weak prosecution of violent crimes is an artifact of the twentieth-century ghetto, where African Americans had no equal protection under the laws but had to fend for themselves, through street justice.

Leovy, simply, elegantly, and directly, builds a sustained case for a carceral state that seeks to remove danger from historically marginalized, poor and working-class communities, rather than, as it does now, primarily try to contain or corral small-scale disorder to meet its productivity quotas and fill city coffers. Leovy’s achievement is stunning—and yet it induces a knotted feeling in my gut that I have come to recognize as hard-earned intellectual, moral ambivalence.

Leovy writes with the moral clarity of an evangelist. After describing the horrors endured by a young female witness, who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather as a child before becoming a prostitute at the age of 11 and later falling in with a series of abusive male partners, including Derrick Starks, Leovy gives a full-throated defense of prosecution and prison:

This was exactly the point: getting rid of people. Seldom was it put this way. But one of the primary reasons to have a legal system is to take certain people out of the picture. It is what justifies the immense power the police hold. If you don’t incapacitate violent actors, they keep pushing people around until someone makes them stop. When violent people are permitted to operate with impunity, they get their way. Advantage tilts to them. Others are forced to do their bidding (178-179).

Taken a bit further, this argument gives you mandatory minimums for violent crimes, the drug war, and Juvenile Life Without Parole, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2012, a decision the court applied retroactively four years later.

But Leovy is not specifically advocating any of these things. You might say she dodges core issues in endorsing vigorous prosecution without acknowledging the horrors of recent policies and the horrors of jail and prison for kids and adults. (You could also argue, as the philosopher Tommie Shelby does, that liberal notions of justice-as-fairness demand a non-carceral response to at least low-level non-violent crime in segregated “ghettos.”)

I suspect Leovy’s elision of these issues may be deliberate, part of her overall strategy to encourage readers unfamiliar with high-homicide neighborhoods to recognize the invisible moral force of policing and prison in their own lives and to approach the normally sensationalized issue of “black-on-black crime” with a neo-institutional, historical sensitivity and humane moral clarity.

Thus, throughout, she remains laser-focused on the value of swift, certain punishment and the sociological consequences of ceding this key domain of the state to private individuals. “Violent people” surely exist and may not be susceptible to oral persuasion or financial inducement to stop harming the public. What then? Leovy wants you to sit with your discomfort as you ponder that question. That alone makes this book worthwhile.

Part III coming soon.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Incarceration: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part II

  1. Pingback: Walled Cities: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part III | Get-tough

  2. Pingback: Policing is Local: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part I | Get-tough

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