Crime is on the rise in America.
Many in the media have argued that this uptick may be because of calls to reform or defund police stemming from the George Floyd police murder in May 2020. However, crime and murder rates were going up before the protests. In addition, few if any law enforcement agencies have been defunded or reformed. The rise in shootings and crime happened as police continued to be highly militarized, funded, and resourced.
Take Los Angeles. In the summer of 2020, as George Floyd-related protests swelled across the country and the world, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to slash $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget. This is a minuscule cut from the overall LAPD budget, which totaled $1.71 billion that fiscal year. And while the money was to be used for crisis response teams and to pay furloughed employees, it nonetheless failed to do anything around crime prevention or intervention.
Then, this past July, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed a 3% increase in police funding, angering many activists who called for cutting the police budget and using those funds for youth programs, drug treatment, mental health assistance, and more.
Even in one of the most liberal of cities, police never really had their budgets cut. Yet, crime and murders are at their highest levels since the 1990s in LA and other major cities. While COVID-19 claimed more than 300,000 lives in 2020, that same year gun violence and gun crime resulted in 19,000 people killed. That’s the highest death toll in more than 20 years.
Crime is not solely a police issue.
But if you can’t blame “defunding police” or policing reform for the increased killings, what can you blame?
Crime, like most issues in our industrial and post-industrial capitalist economic system, is a diamond with many facets. Police address crime mostly from the back end—after the crime has occurred. We have a large, highly budgeted policing system, courts, and a carceral system to address this. But crime continues to rise. What’s sorely lacking is what to do on the front end, to focus on crime’s causes and underpinnings.
To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, too many are hacking at the branches and not at the roots.
I have spent about 50 years working on reducing gang and street violence, including with gang truces and intervention, in LA and Chicago. I’ve also consulted with communities around the country, at Native American reservations and among the urban and rural poor. I’ve been going to prisons, juvenile lockups, jails, and parolee housing for over 40 years for poetry readings, talks, and healing circles. I’ve also taught creative writing as healing from trauma in high-security facilities. Because of my reputation, I’ve visited penal institutions and juvenile detention centers in nearly 20 states as well as in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, England, and Italy, with a month teaching poetry to abandoned children in Honduras. I’ve written a book about my experiences and research called Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times (2001, 2011: Seven Stories Press, NYC).
This is what I’ve learned about crime prevention:
1. Poverty is a major source of crime. Bad housing, bad schools, bad infrastructure, including the “poverty of access.” Poverty destroys families, their dignity, and hope. Most criminality is of want—because of lack of income, food, and other necessities. If you end poverty, you end most crime.
2. All violence, even the most “senseless,” makes sense. Get to the core. Fill the gaps in economic, health, mental health, and skills development with real resources, or they end up getting filled with increased illegal drug use (and more crime to get money for the drugs), gang warfare, and violence. Domestic violence, the No. 1 violence concern among the poor, is hardly ever investigated or treated.
3. Treatment for addiction on demand is nonexistent in too many rural and urban communities. People need high-quality and free access to health care as well as mental health care and drug treatment. People are being punished instead of receiving the help they need. We should start young, and then continue through the developmental stages to adulthood.
4. Fully address the increased access to guns in our communities. Some 2.1 million firearms sales were made from March to May 2020 alone. This demands stricter gun control laws but also—again, going to the source—why guns and drugs are easily accessible in any community, while books or art programs or safe recreational sports are almost nonexistent in the poorest areas.
5. Promote arts as essential for human development, given that we are entering a stage in human society where the arts become primary as technology develops to supersede physical and most mental labor. How are we on the verge of concentrating on the creative capacity of each child and student, and how can we begin to do this now? This is wholly different from STEM education systems. While I’m all for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, creativity is essential to all four aspects. The arts are not just another field—they are the key that turns all the rest.
6. We need community-driven initiation and spiritually based rites of passage for young people. This is how communities across the ages have dealt with trouble, which can’t be eradicated but can be addressed with tools, connections, and resources. This also includes proper mentoring, in the sense of the original meaning of the word in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor is at the helm, the captain of the “ship” that young people use in their quest to find their genius, their destiny, or their calling. A good captain knows that a good sailor is born from rough seas, not calm ones, and that on any journey a young person can always be taken off course. A mentor helps keep the student on track. A mentor’s teachings can be imprinted in the soul of a student for a lifetime.
We know how to do this. Many cities have implemented measures such as drug and mental-health courts, treatment for mental health and drug issues, restorative/transformative justice practices, and wraparound services for the most troubled youth and adults. But they have never been fully or adequately implemented across the country, especially in areas where such comprehensive programming is most needed.
Crime is not solely a police issue. We do police agencies a terrible disservice when we place this squarely in their laps. Most police are not trained for the multifaceted and multidimensional aspects of crime. Law enforcement officers are also subject to attack and stress, making them more susceptible to suicide or substance abuse than other professions. We must—going to the root again—deal fully with the front end of crime as a societal, and mostly preventable, malaise. I’m convinced this would be nowhere near as costly as law enforcement, courts, and prisons now are.
I’m convinced that this is how we “care” straight, not scare straight.
I’m convinced that this is how we “win” on crime.