Thursday, October 6, 2011

Have we already tried social programs to fight crime?

Been there? done that?  On social programs for at risk youth? NOT. 
A couple weeks back I had coffee with a person I respect a lot, who is in favor of the new gang injunction, the curfew and all that kind of stuff.  He truly believed that when it comes to social programs that would get to the roots of the problems “we have tried all that”.  I did not argue because I wanted to hear him out, but I think he could not be more wrong.   

Where we are and where we have been all my life, is in a vicious circle of mercilessness.  Tough on crime, war on drugs, three strikes, holding the families accountable, zero tolerance, yeah, we know the catch words.  For almost two generations now, we, as a culture, have been focused on blame and punishment and for those same two generations we have done little to nothing to promote a healthy society or economy, especially when it comes to providing real opportunity and support for urban poor of color.  Our overcrowded prisons devoid of rehabilitation and our failed parole system are two of many monuments to the disaster that this kind of thinking provides.  Our crime rates, especially our violent crime rates, as much as TEN TIMES the rate of Canada or Japan, should be reason for us all to leave our arrogance aside and be willing to learn and listen. 
We have had the politics of the hard line and we now live with the results that it produced.  

So why this belief that we have really tried it the other way?  Why would anyone believe that we have tried the social programs and now we need to get “hard nosed” and “practical” and “give the police the tools that they need”?  

Maybe it is because many elected officials have been saying that they have been successfully providing social services.  So have many non-profits.

If they say it, can it be true?  Well how American would it be to make a token effort, to do a publicity stunt, to change the image and the name, but not really change much of everything important?  

I think we are constantly being told that the social programs are happening. 
But I do not believe that we have given the social solutions an honest try.  

There is the little, local picture.  We have Measure Y, right?  Some judge is doing restorative justice, good?  There are all these programs for youth, right? Don’t we have public housing?  The county has a public health system?  

Only sort of.  When it really comes to delivering services, there is a serious devil in the details. To quote the East Bay Express talking about the local version of the Cease Fire program:

The Oakland call-ins were run through the city's Department of Human Services and in conjunction with the Measure Y violence prevention initiative. According to a final progress report for the Cal-GRIP grant, it cost $828,217, half in city funds, half in state Cal-GRIP money. However, participation in the program was disappointing. Instead of the target of 216 participants, just 103 people took part in the call-ins, with 34 people receiving education services and 56 participants gaining unsubsidized employment.

Now, we have over 400 shootings a year in Oakland, about a quarter of the victims die.  Just count the numbers from this one grant that helped at most 200 people and ask yourself:  Does it measure up?  Considering the number of people in the justice system, it is only a scratch of the surface. At $800K there are some other questions one might ask too.  Programs like this get held up close to the cameras, while almost all of the offenders in Oakland are going through the revolving door prisons off screen. 

That is not the only place we hold up programs as great hopes and not the statistics that show how little effect we are having because of the sheer numbers.  

Want to look at restorative justice?  All we have are a few small programs around the edge and a lot of talk.  Go to the schools and you will find some very valid alternatives to school discipline and expulsions.   Go down to the court house and you will see young people going through prosecution mills on their way to jail.  The few attempts to get people into some other kind of track are almost volunteer, non profit led and minimal when compared to the number of people involved.  

But be assured that our liberal politicians and our nonprofit executive directors need to make themselves look good to keep getting votes and contributions.  So a lot is made of these efforts that are symbolic at best.  We get a lot of talk about what kind of an example they give.  Examples that the mainstream is not following, unfortunately.  In fact the main stream resists very well thank you.  

Even when Governor Govenator tried to make reforms at the California Department of Corrections he got stabbed in the back by the prison guard unions and others who are part of the “corrections industry”.  They even changed the name to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. A very good former warden was given the top job and was undercut every day of her tenure.   

Ask anyone who has been recently released if they got rehabilitation in the CDCR.  Anyone. 
In the big picture of national and state politics we have never really ended the Reagan years.  With mandatory sentencing, posturing, the re-introduction of the death penalty, the emphasis on blame and punishment, the serious turn away from rehabilitation and all the other counterproductive tendencies in our society, how could a humane, healthy, healing, social solidarity thrive?  How could programs to help the poor survive?  Well, they did not.  The war on poverty got dropped in favor of a war on drugs and a war on the poor.  Not only has our society found ways to consider those of us most in need “undeserving” it has also found a way to blame the poor for their poverty.  

Every social program that the Democrats (and more than a few Republicans) have waived across our TV screens is an exception to the rule.  Reality is that our urban cores have become prisons of poverty and our prisons have become over crowed, racially segregate dungeons.  We have more people in prison as a percentage of our population than any other advanced nation. We have more of our people in poverty too.  As of last month the count was one American in six under the poverty line.  We have as many infant deaths in Oakland as we do murders and we wonder why we have high crime?  

In the last couple years we have had some visitors from other states and nations who have taken a look at our attempts at restorative justice, community policing and wrap around social services.  

One was diplomatic and said that:  “In order to make this policy work we had the full support of the community, the city council, the police, the [prosecutor’s office] and the social services” Doing so they were able to make a serious dent in crime, keeping offenders in the community and practicing some form of restitution, providing support to families in crisis and freeing up the police to focus on the hard core criminals for whom the heavy hand is appropriate.  

We in Oakland can do little about the big state and national picture.
And it does us no good to pretend that we are doing better than we really are. 

But we could practice the kind of unity our visitor described and do a better job with what we have. 

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