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Reason, not emotion, reveals crime solutions

As humans, all of us have some unique qualities that separate us from other animals. We have the ability to reason and to shed emotional tears. Unfortunately, these two traits don't always work well together. Emotions often control our ability to reason and we make mistakes. Everyone is aware of the emotional hype advertisers use to sell products and services. Politicians also use the same tactics. When those empowered to make decisions allow the facts to be obscured by emotions, the result can be shortsighted proposals and bad decisions.

The AIDS crisis is a good example. Scientists, trained to evaluate things on the basis of facts, knew how widespread the disease would become. But policymakers did little to avert the epidemic, hiding behind a shield of emotional hysteria.

Escalating crime, and what to do about it, is another issue that elicits strong emotions from everyone. Gov. Bob Martinez has proposed that Florida build more prisons. This won't solve crime or prison overcrowding. The governor's "Mr. Tough Guy," emotional response is contradictory to the facts. A consultant hired by the state and an independent study have shown that building more prisons is not the answer. Martinez himself admits it would not stop early releases. Violent criminals need to be locked up but many are being released to make room for non-violent ones. Many non-violent criminals can be more effectively punished outside the prison system.

Florida's limited resources must be used for treatment and prevention programs. Today we hear a lot about drug abuse and its associated crime. Many treatment programs have long waiting lists because of limited funds. Operation PAR, a non-profit agency, runs many treatment and prevention programs that need to be expanded. The residential drug treatment program has a 4-year waiting list. There is space for only 84 people. More than 350 are on a waiting list. And these are the motivated ones, who desperately hang on by attending weekly support group meetings until they can get the intensive help needed. This doesn't even count the hundreds of others who gave up and did not bother to put their names on the list.

Money could be better spent on expanding prevention programs as well. The same day the governor proposed building more prisons, there was an article in the St. Petersburg Times on the success of Operation PAR's BETA program. "High risk" teens are taught skills and helped to become productive citizens before they get into trouble. The ALPHA program is directed toward elementary school youngsters. Both programs lack funds to expand. There is no BETA program in north Pinellas and the ALPHA program can serve only 80 children every 10 weeks. Many other social service agencies also lack funds to expand existing programs. We do not need new programs, we know what works. Prisons don't work. Money spent on more prisons is money wasted.

In his budget proposal, Martinez also wants to spend money for another death row prison.

The death penalty has been hotly debated for years. Again, it is important to set aside emotions and look at the facts. First, it does not deter crime. Florida's crime rate continues to rise. Some would argue this is because of lengthy and unnecessary appeals. But this brings up a second point. Mistakes are made. Innocent people have been put to death. In David Olinger's recent article in the St. Petersburg Times, we get a glimpse of how such mistakes can be made. Tom Sawyer may have confessed to a murder he never committed. Since the appeals process is very important to reduce mistakes, we must not curtail it. Fact No. 3 is the death penalty is expensive because appeals are necessary. Taxpayers foot much of the bill. It would be cheaper to abolish the death penalty. Those convicted of capital crimes should serve life sentences with no chance of parole. Another very disturbing fact is the death penalty is racist. A disproportionate number of blacks are on death row and executed each year.

I understand the anguish of victims and am not attempting to diminish their suffering. However, killing another person, regardless of how heinous the crime, cannot undo what has happened. Florida should join 14 other states and abolish the death penalty.

Public policy must be based on fact. Our limited resources cannot be wasted by government officials, and others, who allow their emotions to take control.