Don’t overlook importance of education in war on crime

Don’t overlook importance of education in war on crime

Students hold up a check for $1 million dollars from Chance the Rapper, right, who holds a press conference at Westcott Elementary School in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood on March 6, 2017. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Jeremy Wang
| Columnist

March 16, 2017

In the war on crime, politicians seem to be more focused on punishing criminals than breaking the cycle of violence.

While politicians ignore these base causes of violence, public figures like Chicago musician Chance the Rapper have decided to take action to address them. “Our kids should not be held hostage because of political positions,” he announced at a press conference last week as he donated $1 million to Chicago’s public school system. His donation highlighted the most effective and versatile institutions in the strategy to fight crime — schools. But they are also one of the most underrated and underused.

While education is generally left out of the conversation, heavy-handed policing and strict laws are usually at the center of the political spotlight in crime-fighting. The Democratic Party’s typical answer to gun violence is to ban certain firearms and their accessories despite overwhelming scientific research and evidence that such laws fail to reduce violence.

On the other side, the Republican Party’s platform has responded to rising murder rates by encouraging capital punishment — even though there’s little to no evidence that executions deter criminals. President Donald Trump threatened on Twitter to “send in the Feds” to tackle Chicago’s crime.

The criminal justice system is a vital cornerstone in discouraging people from shooting each other, but not removing the motivations to do so. Law enforcement simply cannot and should not be expected to act as a therapeutic service to remedy the causes of violence. Our school systems can. But in the political PR race to seem tough on crime, schools are often under prioritized and their resources much more susceptible to budget cuts — endangering our most vulnerable students.

Instead of focusing on schools, politicians tend to favor enforcement-heavy approaches to crime that reflect a tendency for the American public to expect far too much out of the police and the criminal justice system. In an article for The Atlantic from April 2015, author Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out the broad social woes that have created an atmosphere of despair and violence in low-income, urban communities. “Peel back the layers of most of the recent police shootings that have captured attention and you will find a broad societal problem that we have looked at, thrown our hands up and said to the criminal justice system, ‘You deal with this.’”

Politicians’ overextension of the criminal justice system seems even more ridiculous in light of the disconnect between lower crime rates and strict laws targeting crime. Four of the 10 cities with the highest violent crime rates in the nation are in states scoring an A- in the Brady Campaign scorecard on gun laws — meaning they have some of the strongest gun control regulations in the country. Seven of the 10 cities with the lowest violent crime rates scored Ds and Fs.

Mass incarceration fueled by “tough-on-crime” politics has led to the jailing of over 2 million Americans. And research shows that these overcrowded jails are optimal breeding grounds for increased rates of violent behavior and repeat offenses.

But while the criminal justice system fails to address the fundamental problems behind persistent violence in many urban areas, public schools play a key role at every step of the process in helping America’s youth stay out of trouble while alleviating the impacts of urban poverty — a major risk factor for violence.

Education advocacy groups, such as the Council for a Strong America, support early childhood education programs as producing better academic and social outcomes. These programs also teach children basic social-emotional skillsets like teamwork, empathy and problem solving.

After-school programs for middle schoolers helped reduce delinquent behavior, while programs emphasizing social skills and character development saw the greatest returns. In high school, just a 1 percent increase in the graduation rate among men would save the United States as much as $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime, according to a 2003 study from UCLA economist Enrico Moretti.

Despite the clear benefits of increased spending on education, most states have been cutting school budgets for the past eight years, making it much more difficult to expand access to early childhood education, increase after-school programs and retain committed and motivated teachers. In at least 31 states, the amount invested in each student in 2014 was less than in 2008, and in 15 of these states, school budgets were slashed by more than 10 percent.

In Pennsylvania alone, nearly $1 billion was cut from public school budgets in 2011 under former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Pittsburgh Public Schools underwent a $34.1 million funding cut under Corbett’s administration as well.

Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable youth bore the brunt of the consequences and threats to public school funding only further entrench the cycle of poverty which nurtures crime and violence. Children in underserved school districts have little reason to expect education to act as a ladder out of violent communities, and the desperation the situation produces only adds to the cycle of violence.

In a speech last July at a memorial service in Dallas, former President Barack Obama lamented, “It is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.” If this is the rhetoric our politicians want to use, we should start asking ourselves why a book is less accessible than a $600 handgun.

Jeremy primarily writes on gun policy and violent crime.

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