Today’s guest columnists are Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr and U.S. Attorney Prim F. Escalona.
Jefferson County has a murder problem.
Our murder problem is so prolifically deadly, that it even eclipses the annual homicide rate for the entire continent of Australia, a nation of more than 25 million people.
Yes, our county is more violent than a continent that has nearly 40 times our population. In 2021, Australia had 193 murder victims, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
During that same time, Jefferson County had 235 homicides. Birmingham, the epicenter of our violence, saw 144 homicides in 2022.
Public and media attention are frequently focused on the senseless, random shootings and acts of violence that often involve young offenders. In criminal justice administration, we’re taught to follow the data in order to address crime. The data for Jefferson County is strikingly clear on how we can reduce our community’s murder problem.
Community violence in Jefferson County is inextricably linked to domestic violence. In 2022, 71% of Jefferson County’s homicide offenders had a prior history of domestic violence. In 2021, that number was 74%. In 2020, it was 53%, and 58% in 2019.
And, yes, many teenage and young adult shooters in Jefferson County first come to the attention of law enforcement because of domestic violence. Nearly 60% of Jefferson County’s homicide offenders in 2022, who were 21 years old or younger, already had a history of domestic violence – having committed on average two prior DV offenses before killing in our community.
There is no other factor more strongly correlated with who is doing the killing in our community than looking at people who have a prior history of domestic violence.
This progression of violence exists because our community has yet to prioritize protections for victims and accountability for domestic abusers. Domestic abuse is often treated as a private matter, within households and families. But, violence in homes escalates when it goes unchecked. Abusers become more brazen. Abusers don’t just get away with violence once, they get away with it countless times until they have no restraint before pulling a trigger.
Even when a victim files charges for assault or strangulation against their abuser, our justice system often makes them wait years before their day in court. Too often, due to persistent fear or a desire to move on in life, victims stop cooperating in prosecutions and cases are dropped. These dropped cases then allow abusers to continue their escalation of violence in the home and in our community.
Data consistently and emphatically shows that people who are violent within their home and relationships are violent within our community.
So, the question is, what can we do about it? How can we improve protections for victims of domestic violence and increase supervision of domestic abusers before they become murderers?
Too much of our public safety system puts too heavy of a burden on traumatized victims. And, our community is suffering because few victims can bear that weight. For example, victims in Jefferson County are uniquely burdened when seeking protection.
Jefferson County is the only county in Alabama where victims are required to appear in person to seek a protection from abuse order. Every other county allows victims to request a protection order remotely, like while receiving care at an advocacy organization or in an attorney’s office.
For the victims who are granted protection, too few protection orders are successfully served on their abusers. Nearly 1,000 protection from abuse orders are issued each year in Jefferson County. But, due to limited law enforcement resources and abusers evading service, fewer than half are ever successfully served on the abuser. This evasion of service negates some of the criminal consequences abusers face if their violence continues.
Even after protection from abuse orders are served, Alabama has no mechanism to ensure that abusers surrender weapons that are prohibited by both state and federal law.
If we don’t do more to help victims find protection from violence, data clearly shows their abusers will eventually harm others in our community – often with deadly force.
Not every domestic abuser becomes a homicide offender. But, those who do commit homicide in Jefferson County have an average of three to four domestic abuse offenses. Lethality and risk-assessments exist to help guide our public safety systems, and we must consistently use them.
In 2022, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office developed a Domestic Violence High-Risk Team to identify abusers who are exhibiting repeated, escalating violence and to prioritize any available prosecution to best protect our community from those violent offenders.
Ever-escalating violence permeates every aspect of our socio-economic fabric. Domestic violence is not and cannot be a private problem. It is directly connected to our community’s murder problem.
Do you want a crime-fighting strategy that will reduce homicides in Jefferson County? Let’s prioritize enforcement on those already violent offenders, who data shows are the most likely to kill. And, let’s protect the victims they’ve already harmed. That’s a homicide prevention strategy that will work.
District Attorney Danny Carr was elected in November 2018 as District Attorney for the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Alabama. Mr. Carr attended Council Elementary and Jackson Olin High School, then received his undergraduate degree from Alabama State University and his Juris Doctorate Degree from Miles College School of Law.
Prim F. Escalona was appointed as U.S. Attorney on July 16, 2020, after holding multiple leadership positions within the Department of Justice’s Office of Legislative Affairs and the Office of Legal Policy. Ms. Escalona received her law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Birmingham-Southern College.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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