Improving the school system can help clean up the streets
I’ve written before in these pages that education is the civil rights issue of our time and that we have a moral and ethical imperative to improve the quality of education that every child receives in this country. There are important ethical and economic reasons to consider when discussing why we must improve the quality of education in America. However, there is one more consideration that is just as important: public safety.
Traditional criminal justice policies and reforms address predictable issues, such as increasing police funding, hiring more officers, or creating harsher sentencing laws. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of these policies in actually reducing crime. The latest attempt to reform crime in this manner is California’s famous (or infamous?) three-strikes law, which mandates a 25-year penalty for third-felony offenses. The evidence is mixed, but externalities — unintended costs — are obvious. California has now incarcerated so many people that it is under federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding.
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is a nonprofit association of anti-crime professionals. Their 2008 report notes that high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely than graduates to be arrested and 8.5 times more likely to be jailed for a significant period. It also estimates that “increasing graduation rates by 10 percentage points would prevent over 3,000 murders and nearly 175,000 aggravated assaults in America each year.” It’s as if the Sept. 11 attacks are happening every year, right under our collective noses, simply because of our failure to educate each member of our society.
Another nonprofit, The Alliance for Excellent Education, reports that increasing high school graduation by five percent would save $8 billion alone in “crime-related” costs.
It’s tempting to ignore the data and instead focus on what some optimistically term “personal responsibility.” It isn’t society’s fault that teens drop out of high school and go on to murder people, the argument goes. Crime prevention should be the purview of law enforcement and should focus on improving police budgets and manpower or passing increasingly strict sentencing laws. After all, logic dictates that with stringent enough punishments, criminals will make safer decisions. People must exercise responsibility over their own behavior, regardless of background or circumstance, and public policy should only focus on encouraging responsible behavior.
This rational cost-benefit analysis is impossible if the would-be criminals do not actually possess the critical thinking abilities to reason through the logical ramifications of their actions. Moreover, our failure to educate them deprives them of the means of finding capable, legal employment, giving them economic incentive to engage in illegal and dangerous activity.
Detractors will also argue that it is the fault of the family and parents for not teaching their children properly. This has a grain of truth; there’s no denying that a breakdown of family values contributes to the problem of educational neglect and the crime it spawns. However, this critique also ignores the whole picture. It ignores the realities of the vicious cycle of generational poverty, where parents who grow up poor and ill-educated don’t possess the knowledge or ability to fight for their child’s education. It ignores the realities of immigrant families, where parents care a great deal about their children, but have language and socioeconomic barriers which hinder their ability to advocate for them.
This is not to excuse any individual of crime, or to suggest that society shouldn’t punish criminals. The only way to break that cycle of ignorance—and by extension crime—is to ensure the true promise of American democracy: That all citizens have equality of opportunity. We can’t control genetics, place of birth, or the parental right to have children. We can ensure that every child receives an excellent education, and grows up to become a responsible member of society. It is difficult, messy, and controversial, but there is no doubt anymore that it is possible.
We should stop focusing on policies that have mixed benefit in actually reducing crime, and politicians should stop campaigning on ever-stricter pledges to fight crime. Instead, we must focus on what actually works in reducing crime and also has a range of other positive social benefits instead of external costs.
If we and our political representatives are truly committed to the safety and security of our country, we should stop posturing over traditional crime policies and instead address the real problem.