To fight urban crime, use the schools

March 01, 1994|By Bob Herbert

IT'S refreshing, amid all the bluster and the dimwitted muscle-flexing of politicians masquerading as tough guys, to see rTC a common-sense approach to the fight against crime.

For the past several weeks, ever since Congress and the White House awoke to the startling (to them) news that crime had risen to the top of the public opinion polls, the country has been stampeded by John Wayne wannabes trying to outshout each other with hysterical cries of hang 'em, burn 'em, gas 'em, or -- failing that -- at least lock 'em up forever.

The Senate version of the omnibus crime bill managed to extend the death penalty to 52 more offenses. The bad guys will never notice.

And then there's the violent felons retirement plan, cleverly dubbed "three strikes and you're out." That's the awesomely brilliant proposal that permits taxpayers to support three-time losers all the way through their dotage. Your grandchildren will see situations like the following: Three-finger Jones, who has been in prison since he was 22, is now 88 and senile. He cannot be freed because of legislation passed during a crime-fighting frenzy that erupted in the latter years of the 20th century.

Anybody care to see the medical bills?

Out of this atmosphere emerges the dignified figure of Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey with a modest, intelligent proposal to help steer young people away from crime. Called the "community schools initiative," it's a plan to 'Three strikes and you're out' is an awesomely brilliant proposal that permits taxpayers to support three-time losers all the way through their dotage.

make public school buildings available for a wide range of after-school activities for youngsters in impoverished big-city neighborhoods.

The Senate version of the crime bill would provide $400 million for the proposal.

"In a lot of neighborhoods the school buildings are the largest public space, and they are grossly underutilized," said Mr. Bradley. "They're equipped with everything from athletic facilities to an auditorium to a library. It doesn't make sense to have them sitting there empty after regular school hours. It's a waste."

The senator's proposal would open school buildings to community groups that are already working with children and teen-agers. "They could reach many more youngsters that way," the senator said. "You could have mentoring programs, storytelling for younger kids and athletic events. You could have the libraries open for quiet time, for studying. To me, it's a way of creating a safe haven for these kids in a world that has become increasingly dangerous."

Left to their own devices, it is difficult for children to stay away from mischief, or worse. Young people need responsible adult supervision. That supervision is especially lacking in the crime-ridden, drug-infested streets of inner-city neighborhoods.

Senator Bradley originally had proposed a $15 million pilot project "to test this thing out." That was the most he could reasonably expect to get approved. But then came the polls (which followed the defeat of a couple of big-city Democrats to law-and-order Republicans), and the rush toward anti-crime legislation was on.

While many of Mr. Bradley's colleagues were drawing attention with loud (and dubious) calls for billions of dollars' worth of boot camps and additional prison cells, he quietly expanded his proposal to do something for the kids at the core (both as victims and perpetrators) of the national crime problem.

The Clinton administration supports Mr. Bradley's proposal. As the overall crime bill goes through its inevitable permutations, it's to be hoped that the proposal survives intact.

As important as it is to provide activities and supervision for young people, there is another major benefit to be gained from Mr. Bradley's proposal. It will help foster a sense of community in neighborhoods in danger of crumbling altogether.

"The community and the schools need to work together," the senator said, "just like the community and the police need to work together. And if you look at the police as an occupying army, or the schools as a fortress that shuts down at 3 in the afternoon and on weekends, and during the summer, then you're really missing the opportunity to make connections among people of good will."

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.

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