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Mayors want to attack root causes of criminality


The mayors walked down the front steps of the Justice Department and stood behind the microphones that were set up on the sidewalk.

They had just come out of a 45-minute meeting with Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss crime in America.

(And if 45 minutes isn't time enough to solve that problem, there must be something seriously wrong with government.)

Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore was there as was Rich Daley of Chicago, William Althaus of York, Pa., and the mayors of Fort Wayne, Ind., Kansas City, Mo., Evanston, Ill., Knoxville, Tenn., and Colorado Springs, Colo.

The line-up was devised to deliver a message: Crime is a serious problem in cities of every size and location.

And what did the mayors do with their 45 minutes?

"We expressed the belief that interdiction, law enforcement and longer sentences have not worked," Althaus, who is also the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said. "We need more emphasis on neighborhoods, on lives, on people."

Even though Althaus is a Republican, this is solid Democratic stuff.

The battle lines were drawn back in the '60s. The Republicans became the party of "law and order" and the Democrats became the party of "root causes."

The root-causes theory of crime is that people become criminals because of a bad home life, bad neighborhoods, bad education, poverty, and insufficient alternatives to crime.

The law-and-order theory is that there is no evidence that poverty actually causes crime. The bulk of poor people, after all, are not criminals. And money, therefore, should be spent on more effective policing, a swifter court system, greater certainty of punishment and longer prison sentences.

The root-causes people have seen the law-and-order theory put into practice for a while now and they have a response to it:

Why hasn't it worked? We have spent billions on crime control; we have increased the length of prison sentences; we are arresting more people and what's the result?

Less crime? Safer streets? A better society?

Don't make us laugh.

Let's try a different path, the root-causes people say. Sure we need more police because we know our cities are dangerous, but let's also improve the quality of life for people so they feel they have a stake in their own communities.

And while we are doing this, we have to bring some rationality to our system of punishment.

The prison population of America exceeds 1 million persons, and Janet Reno now wants to explore whether it wouldn't be better to keep minor drug offenders in prison a shorter amount of time so we can keep murderers, rapists and robbers in prison longer.

"But if you arrest all the people who are committing crimes and don't change the environment, you are doing nothing," Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, Mo., said.

This is root-causes dogma and Kurt Schmoke agrees with it.

"The criminal justice system clearly is in crisis," he said. "We are not, at this point, doing what we should be doing: ensuring domestic tranquillity.

"[Reno] didn't talk about a lot of new dollars. She talked about educating people about what really works."

And what really works?

"The children's agenda," Schmoke said. "Head Start. Summer jobs. Recreation programs. Putting money on the front end."

I asked Schmoke if he suggested drug legalization to Reno.

"I came at it gingerly," Schmoke said. "I asked her if she would consider, perhaps, a national commission to study the subject."


"And she said she was not a big fan of national commissions," he said. "But she constantly emphasized that [drug] treatment and prevention were very important."

Solving the problem of crime in America is not going to be easy, the mayors agreed. There is Congress to deal with and Congress is made up of 535 individuals, all of whom are experts on crime. New approaches will be needed. But the best place to find new approaches is often from new people.

"And this lady," Schmoke said of Janet Reno, "is as tough as nails."

Which is good. Because so are the bad guys.

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