CINCINNATI — Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is at war. Neither he nor his assistant prosecutors plan to offer plea deals to people accused of gun crimes in the wake of the July 4 shooting that killed 16-year-old Milo Watson and 19-year-old Dexter Wright in the middle of a crowded Smale Park.
Mayor John Cranley is, too. The city of Cincinnati is partnering with the Department of Justice in a new effort to bring federal charges against people who illegally possess firearms.
But community leaders and criminal justice experts said it doesn’t help to block off only one end of a pipeline. If politicians and police want a less violent city, their drive to charge and jail offenders should move in lockstep with efforts to scrub out the conditions that create crime: poverty, desperation and inequality.
“It’s being able to work with Chief (Eliot) Isaac — who I believe is doing the best job he can in his role — to be able to remove the guns from the streets and get them out of the hands of the young people who are having these issues, but then also to provide support to the young people who are part of families, part of communities, right?” said Damian Hoskins, executive director of the hip-hop cultural arts center Elementz in Over-the-Rhine.
Hoskins thinks some of the problems lie in lack of access to mental health care, particularly what’s known as “trauma-informed care” — an approach that makes room for a subject’s history of trauma in treatment. Without help and social-emotional coping skills, traumatized people aren’t conditioned to communicate effectively.
He believes that inability to communicate contributes to violent confrontations like the one on July 4.
Ebony Ruhland, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice, said that an overly punitive strategy — especially without accompanying trauma-informed care for people affected by gun violence — is more likely to compound the problem than solve it.
"We have to be cautious in not just doing these knee-jerk, ‘getting tough on crime,’ you know, locking people up and throwing away the keys, because there's plenty of research to show that those types of measures are not effective,” she said.
That “tough-on-crime” approach and its harsh punishments for offenders, she continued, can contribute to a cycle of violence by cutting off their pathways back into a normal life, driving them further into poverty and desperation with no support.
“There’s collateral consequences that make it harder for them to find a job, make it harder for them to find housing, make if harder for them to pay their bills,” she said. “So then, of course, they revert right back to criminal behavior.”