The Many Pieces of the Crime Puzzle

March 15, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Is middle America behind official Washington's rush to pass the toughest, meanest crime bill in our history?

Check the Senate's 90-4 vote last November to federalize more gun crimes, set mandatory sentences and build a string of regional federal prisons, and you'd think lawmakers had a unified nation behind them. With President Clinton joining in the cry for a ''three-strikes-and-you're-out'' bill, pressure's on the House to do the same.

Out of rural Mercer County, Ohio, comes a very different message. Some 25 local officials -- county and city judges, mayors and council members, police chiefs, prosecuting attorneys, school and social-service officials -- met for a day in February to decide how their community should deal with rising local crime.

Mercer is a conservative county, where you'd expect tougher sentences, strong punishment and jail expansion to be popular. Some of the officials did start the day, in fact, urging a crackdown on youthful wrongdoers.

Yet after several hours of debate, the officials agreed on a surprising crime-fighting program.

First on the list: Identify ''at risk'' youngsters in the first grades of school and create a new support system for them. Next, create a community-based juvenile rehabilitation program. Build a new community correctional facility -- but tie it in closely with rehabilitation programs. Give local police more professional training -- not so much to crack down on dangerous youth, but because reactions by ill-prepared police ''can often create criminals.''

None of that, says Mercer County Judge Jeffrey Ingraham, means the group had gone soft on the idea of ''identifying people who commit violent crimes and making sure they are punished and segregated from society.''

But the Mercer County officials noted the harsh reality of expenses building up on every front: The court wants a new probation officer, the prosecutor another investigator, the sheriff another couple of deputies. The schools, children's services, drug and alcohol agencies were all under more pressure.

So, says Judge Ingraham, ''We had to address the whole system to be successful public leaders.'' Everyone in the discussions agreed the breakdown of the family was a huge factor in the crime rise. Someone mentioned that when a juvenile gets in trouble, a teacher often says he or she could see the trouble coming. ''So we decided to get to the kids as soon as they get into the public system.''

The Mercer County outcome reflects the difference between asking citizens for snap opinions on a complex issue such as crime -- or evoking considered judgments about what really needs to be done.

A community often needs some help to get there. Facilitator of the Mercer County round table was James Kunde, head of the Coalition to Improve Management in State and Local Government at Indiana University. He let sparks fly, encouraged airing of a full range of views before nudging the group toward consensus.

Now Judge Ingraham expects the process to move forward. Other meetings will set specific steps to implement the newly identified strategies.

Along with prevention on the youth side, he says, there has to be rehabilitation on the adult side. ''We can't afford to put a larger and larger portion of society away in prison, not do anything to rehabilitate them, spend all that money to house them, and get nothing out of it.''

What happens to people in prison anyway, said the judge, is that ''they often sour totally on life and come out more likely to commit serious crimes than when they went in.''

None of this is radical talk. Police and prison chiefs, increasingly, have been saying the same thing, calling for a reinvented system.

Why is the crowd inside the Washington Beltway marching in the other direction?

Maybe the more one is removed from the realities of street crime, the easier it is to engage in superficial ''law 'n' order'' politicking. In state capitols you find the cries for stiffer sentences, more jails and willingness to ignore the social side almost as prevalent as in Washington.

The politicians seem as willing to victimize officials another level down as to bamboozle the public into thinking more jails are a realistic solution. The crime bill before Congress imposes all manner of mandates on states to increase their mandatory sentences, hold criminals longer and expand their jails, in order to store more prisoners in a new chain of federally financed prisons.

State officials are beginning to complain loudly about a new wave of federal mandates. At the same time, many legislatures are trying to force counties to imprison (and pay for) more offenders, so that more and more fresh criminals can be packed into the state prisons.

Maybe what the country needs is a Mercer County-style approach: Get the judges, police, prison wardens, social service providers and school officials around the table to think hard about the crime problem. Then expect some approaches that have a chance of stopping crimes before they occur, creating a truly safer society for us all.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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