The Difference Between a Winner and a MuggerWashington...

May 23, 1994|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON AMERICA'S HOMELANDS POLICY C — The Difference Between a Winner and a Mugger

Washington. -- President Clinton just signed into law the best anti-crime bill that will come out of this session of Congress.

No, I'm not talking about the omnibus monstrosity that's designed to lock up a half-million more Americans forever and set up 50 new reasons for executing people. I am talking about the bill to add $700 million to the Head Start program, putting a total of some $4 billion a year into education and other assistance for disadvantaged preschoolers. Let me tell you a story to illustrate why I am sure that Head Start is the greatest anti-crime legislation.

I spent Wednesday night at the Project Excellence dinner here where 103 black high school seniors received more than $2.4 million in scholarships. One winner, Christopher Hargrove, told how he was robbed at gunpoint last January while he was on crutches and wearing a cast on a broken ankle. He said the robber was ''about my age, about my size, about my complexion. What set the gunman apart from me was invisible, something on the inside. It was education and our visions of tomorrow.''

Head Start sets a solid foundation for constructive education and fashions bright visions of tomorrow, which is why it was so heartening to me to hear the president predict that Head Start will serve 840,000 children next year, compared with 621,000 in 1992.

And it was encouraging that members of Congress are aware that spending a few thousand dollars a year on a child is far wiser than spending $25,000 a year to incarcerate a teen-ager who, lacking education, hope or vision, has become a menace to society. After all, the House voted 393 to 20 and the Senate 98 to 2 to expand the Head Start program.

Well then, why can't I finish this column with a great burst of happiness? Because there is an element of fraud in the White House Head Start ceremony. Congress is promising funds members know it will never deliver, and the president goes along with the game.

Building prisons and jails is now the great growth industry in America. Two and a half billion dollars worth of prisons are now under construction. The crime bill soon to be passed will allocate perhaps another $13 billion to construct more penitentiaries. Even though the United States has quadrupled in 20 years and doubled in the last 10 years the number of people locked up, with no meaningful reduction in crime, frightened Americans are going to demand that we blow another $15 billion on the fantasy notion that the more prisons we build, the more tranquility we'll have.

With the budget caps and other restraints on spending, Head Start will be lucky to get a fifth of the additional $700 million authorized. But you can be sure that the prisons will be funded -- demagoguing congressmen have created such a furor over crime that they must cut other programs recklessly to free up the money for prisons.

President Clinton knows very well that Head Start symbolizes the difference between a scholarship winner and a mugger. The question is whether he'll really fight to fund this promised expansion of an educational program that truly helps children when they most need it.

8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist. Washington. -- Now that apartheid has fallen in South Africa, are we preparing our own homelands policy in the United States -- the de facto exile, behind bars, of high numbers of young men of color?

That danger is posed by ''three strikes and you're out'' (life imprisonment for three violent felonies) and other harsh, mandatory sentencing laws being passed by Congress and many state legislatures. Study after study shows Americans of color are punished disproportionately to whites.

A new Georgia law says ''two strikes and you're out.'' And ''one strike and you're out'' bills have surfaced in at least two states.

Parole restrictions and so-called ''truth in sentencing'' (to make long terms inescapable) may force Virginia to build 15 or more new prisons. California, on top of 12 new prisons already planned, will need 20 more at a $21 billion cost, with operating costs spiraling up an extra $5 billion a year to take care of three-strike lifers.

Will this work? Will it make us safer?

There is zero evidence to suggest it will. We already have 900,000 people in federal and state prisons, and another quarter-million in local jails. The number of people we imprison has more than doubled in the last decade. We lead the civilized world in imprisoned citizens. If incarceration were the answer, we'd presumably have seen the benefit by now.

We know for whom the new incarceration net is intended. The answer is etched in race. In 1993, according to Justice Department figures, 55 percent of the new admissions to state and federal prisons were African-Americans. Eighteen percent were Hispanics, Asian or Native American. Only 27 percent were white.

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