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Intervene early to prevent crime

When we first see 20-year-old Jeremy Estrada, he is naked from the waist up.

We assume we're in a jail cell somewhere for a "don't end up like me" public service ad against teen violence. Jeremy describes a mother who used drugs, and he shows us the tattoo he got at age 9 when he joined a gang. He tells of being shot at and stabbed and beating people.

But instead of sending him to jail as a teenager, a judge sentenced Jeremy to a teenage work program, where Jeremy turned his life around. The shirt he is putting on is a white shirt. And as he adds a tie, Jeremy tells us how he graduated from high school first in his class, how he is attending a university on scholarship, and how he hopes to go to medical school. "I may still cut you up someday," he says, "but it will be to take out your appendix."

The Jeremy ad is part of a political campaign to fill a void in the debate about crime that could cost us a generation. In California, as in most states, our priority has been placed on prison cells to the virtual exclusion of prevention. We spend $2.2-billion on juvenile justice _ and less than 5 percent of that goes toward prevention.

As a matter of crime control and economics, this has never made sense, but it has been accepted as political wisdom that the only place to be in the public debate is on the side of more prisons and longer sentences.

The surveys conducted by Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin and Associates for the Resources For Youth campaign found, as expected, that the public fears youth violence. But across every line of race, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation and location, respondents see prevention _ and not prison cells _ as the most important priority in dealing with the expanding population of male teenagers in the next 10 years. In California, upward of 80 percent of us favor prevention over punishment.

But neither our budget nor our political debates reflect that. Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough, became a symbol of the 1988 presidential campaign. Horton casts a long shadow, and politicians continue to vie to see who is "toughest." The certainty that there will be mistakes _ criminals released who should not have been _ in even the best of programs turns them into political poison.

Money also plays an increasingly important role. The fastest growing public employee union in California and many other states is the prison guards union. And they have become a very effective lobby for prison construction. There is no equivalent group representing teenagers.

The traditional argument in favor of rehabilitation is grounded in the view that it is our responsibility for creating the conditions that lead teens to commit crimes. That argument loses. Most people who grow up disadvantaged do not turn out to be criminals.

The reason to prevent youth crime is not because we're responsible for causing it, but because we'll all be better off if we do. Funded by the California Wellness Foundation, a creation of HMO-giant HealthNet, Resources For Youth sees youth violence not simply as an occasion for moral judgment and political posturing, but also as a public health threat.

The answer is clear. Why wouldn't we want to attack the single biggest cause of death to our young people, regardless of whose fault it is? If we can intervene earlier in a kid's life and help him turn himself around _ and save ourselves money and injury in the process _ is there any argument in the world that we shouldn't?

According to the surveys, the public is willing even to pay taxes to prevent crime. But in this case, the challenge is not to persuade the public of the importance of prevention. It is to convince policymakers that prevention is no longer political poison.

Creators Syndicate

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