Crime, the Environment, and Managing Decline

The Land Use Profs posted the abstract of an article detailing how smartly managing decline might be as important as smartly managing growth.  As some cities face declining populations, those cities must deal with the emptiness left behind, and the article explores choices those cities can make to deal with this decline and the consequences of those decisions. I thought the most interesting wrinkle presented by this article is the effect managing decline can have on crime.

My two main interests in law school were environmental law and criminal law, but I never really figured out how to put those two fields into to conversation with each other while I was in school.  I felt like there was an assumption that if you believe in conservation then you’re a left-wing radical, and if you’re a lefty, then your only interest in criminal law is criminal defense.  The law likes putting people in boxes.  Maybe that assumption is true, but relating environmental protection to going into a courtroom to advocate for the accused seems hard.

With criminal defense, an attorney is often faced with bad facts and statutes that aren’t written to favor of the accused (that assumption is seeming truer with every word).  With criminal law, the parties and legal arguments are what matter, but with environmental law, I think other things, like science, matter just as much (I know there are complex criminal cases and science is often at dispute in those cases).  I offer the recent case, The Aransas Project v. Shaw (SD Tex. 2013), as evidence.  That case seemed to really depend on a court that was willing to engage with the science, something that’s outside of a lot of attorneys’ experience.  Further, environmental cases are all about the broad consequences of certain actions going forward whereas criminal cases look at past actions and hand out justice on an individual-by-individual basis.  The defense might worry about broader consequences, maybe, but the law doesn’t bother too much with them (beyond esoteric theories of deterrence and a prosecutor’s comments to the media).  My point is, these fields aren’t exactly the same.

When crime is addressed on a community-wide basis, however, I start to see more commonality.  Prosecutors and law enforcement generally, unlike defense attorneys, have the opportunity to deal with crime on a community scale, and in some jurisdictions, a lot of progress combating crime (and keeping people out of jail) has been made by mapping hot spots of crimes and targeting those areas rather than arresting whatever scary-looking person is standing on the corner.  Conservation and environmental restoration is all about mapping.  Where are toxic release locations?  What woodlands can handle runoff the best?  In what watershed is this endangered habitat located?  Maps, maps, maps.  David M. Kennedy’s book Don’t Shoot got me thinking about this connection.

In the book, Kennedy, a criminologist, talks about mapping crime to end street violence and shutting down what he calls open-air drug markets to better handle drug crimes.  The open-air markets are sometimes in parks, and sometimes they are that house that everyone knows.  Driving drug dealers out of parks sounds a lot like environmental justice to me, depending on how it’s done, and so I got to thinking that there might be something here that connects criminal law to  environmental law.  Then, along comes this article on the Land Use Prof blog.

The article talks about how abandoned buildings can reduce property values and attract crime, the so-called Broken Windows theory.  Could these buildings become open-air drug markets?  Maybe, but the article argues that cities need to manage this decline smartly.  The authors show that demolishing a building that was the site of crime only displaces the crime, and so city planners need to take that displacement into account if they’re going to be smart about their decline.  Well, David Kennedy explains that when one open-air drug market is shut down, it doesn’t necessarily sprout up somewhere else.  Some of the activity might move, but Kennedy explains that it stays underground and that it doesn’t come back as strong as it was before, meaning that communities get better and crime declines.

Sounds like law enforcement and environmentalists could learn something from one another.  None of this discussion is meant to suggest that building parks reduces crime.  Razing part of a neighborhood to build a new park, alienating the remaining residents in the process, could conceivably make things worse, and as Kennedy might say, you don’t need a park to not shoot people.

Kennedy explains that a big part of what drives crime is the alienation a lot of communities, especially minority communities, feel in regard to their governments.  Environmentalists, especially those environmentalists in environmental justice, spend a lot of time working with those same communities, and restoring a park can drive out crime.  Nevertheless, a group of rich kids from elite universities going into a poor neighborhood telling the residents there how to reshape there lives might make some people angry.  Imagine a group of “experts” coming into your neighborhood deciding which buildings should be demolished and who should have a concrete trail built in his or her back yard — might further some of that alienation.

Putting these two areas of the law, criminal law and environmental law, on the same page would give both fields the opportunity to learn a lot, and that could make both fields more effective and more just.


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