Local NAACP president George Buntin may have put his finger on the problem recently when he addressed a forum on crime at Zion Lutheran Church in downtown Baltimore: "There is a sense of hopelessness among young people today," Mr. Buntin told his audience. "We have a generation of young people who feel they have nothing to lose."
The gathering, one of three such events this fall sponsored by Marylanders for Social Concern and The Baltimore Sun, brought together a group of panelists that included Mr. Buntin, Maryland ACLU vice president Olinda Moyd and Baltimore City Police Maj. Alvin Winkler.
All agreed that police are mere fingers in the dike against the tide of crime, despite the prevalent notion that by "getting tough" the problem can be solved. Police have grown increasingly impatient with the legal "red tape" they see inhibiting them. They want fewer rules limiting searches and seizures and the amounts set for bail for criminal defendants. Some states have proposed even more drastic measures: in North Carolina there have been calls for reintroducing chain gangs; in Delaware, for a return of the whipping post.
All these "solutions" arise out of a fearful and corrosive frustration over a situation in which many no longer feel safe in their own homes.
Yet there is little evidence that curtailing constitutional rights would affect crime rates. Nor are stiffer sentences, including capital punishment, likely to deter today's violent offenders, at least as long as society offers the young people most at risk so few constructive alternatives to a life of crime.
The answer must be sought in alleviating the conditions -- of poverty, hopelessness and despair -- that put young people at risk for criminal behavior. Society should not "coddle" criminals. But police alone cannot solve the crime problem so long as society fails to address the hopelessness and despair that drives so many young people to violence and illicit profit, thereby squandering their chances for a better life.