The Danger of Living in U.S. Cities for Young Men

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In the Dark Ages of criminal justice in the United States – the 1980s and earlier – it was not uncommon for a judge to give a convicted criminal a choice: go to jail, or enlist in the armed services. Such a choice was rightfully deemed unjust. But two recent research studies show that the battlefield may be a safer place than city streets for young men in America today.

First, noted University of Pennsylvania criminologists John MacDonald and Roland Neil studied the concentration of arrests and crime in 2014-19 across six cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Tucson, and Colorado Springs. The authors found a hyper-concentration of crime in a relatively few number of blocks in any city. As noted in the study, “These arrest hot spots exhibit high levels of year-on-year stability, in all cities and for all racial and ethnic groups. Further, there is a close association between crime hot spots and arrest hot spots, even in models that adjusted for demographic, socioeconomic, and other key features of places.” This finding matches the well-established fact that less than 5% of locations in any city generate over 50% of violent crime, but the research drives the point home with mind-numbing detail across a diverse swath of American cities.

How dangerous are these hot spots? A different set of quantitative researchers, including respected professors Brandon del Pozo and Aaron Chalfin, addressed this issue, asking a fundamental question: How does the risk of firearm-related death and injury for young adult males in parts of major cities in the United States compare to the corresponding risks faced by military personnel deployed to war in Iraq and Afghanistan? In other words, what is more dangerous, the battlefield or American cities?

The results were disturbing. In 2020-21, “young adult males from zip codes with the most violence in Chicago and Philadelphia had a notably higher risk of firearm-related death than US military personnel who served during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Those at greatest risk were black and Hispanic men. Even soldiers serving in one of the most dangerous Army brigade combat teams, ones that saw constant wartime engagements, had a better chance of living through the year than 18-29-year-old men in the worst parts of these American cities. To make the point even clearer, a young man living in the most violent zip code in Chicago has a 5.8% chance every year of being shot.

The grim truth is that being a young man on a bad block in North Philly or the South Side of Chicago is statistically more dangerous than being a young man assigned to a combat battalion in Iraq or Afghanistan during those wars. Think about the logic of these studies in the context of that old-time justice referenced above. If a judge in Chicago or Philadelphia had the choice of sending a young man convicted of a crime to prison, to war, or home on probation, it turns out that the quantitatively safest place would be prison.

How did we get to a place where a young man is safer at war than at home? Commentators have proposed various explanations: a refusal to prosecute violent offenders, demonization and demoralization of the police, wrongheaded bail reforms, pandemic-related effects, social media-fueled violence, and other theories. Whatever the cause, our leaders have made policy choices that are making the streets of American cities unsafe for everybody. Whether young men are dying on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan, or in the streets of Chicago and Philadelphia, their deaths are still a tragedy.

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