Was There Crime in the Emerald City of Oz?

August 15, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Even before Thursday's House vote refusing a debate on the crime bill, conservative ''law-and-order'' Republicans were expressing raw contempt for the social and community-based initiatives written into the measure.

The conference committee had barely revealed its $30.2 billion compromise measure July 28 when Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch damned it as ''a big-spending boondoggle.'' Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde disparaged ''soft'' portions of the bill -- money for drug courts, to fight violence against women, to give ghetto kids an alternative to debilitating street life -- as ''the whole Emerald City of Oz.''

In these Republicans' view, social spending equals wasted dollars. They don't mind the federal government spending money -- lots of money -- on crime. But it has to be for incarceration -- the crime bill's $10.5 billion for new prisons, for example. The Republicans also endorse the ''three-strikes-and-you're-out'' sentencing provision (thus guaranteeing the new prisons full occupancy for generations to come).

Believing the Republican formula will work is itself like believing in the City of Oz. We already imprison wrongdoers at levels unknown in other industrialized nations. We've more than doubled our incarceration rate since 1980 yet our levels of crime have created such anguish that people call it our most serious issue.

The Republicans do raise, however, a critical question: Will the crime bill's social spending work?

What about the provision New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley got into the bill -- to spend $630 million over six years to fund community organizations to keep school buildings open for supervised youth programs after school hours, on weekends and over summers? Isn't that a ''soft'' idea Congress could safely jettison?

Well, maybe. Except that the base of our crime problem, in Mr. Bradley's words, is ''the epidemic of violence among disaffected, forgotten, angry and lonely young people.''

Inner-city kids in particular get denied what they need most -- a safe place, a haven, some constructive activity, and a mentor.

Yet we could do something about it. One of the ''great outrages of our cities,'' Senator Bradley notes, ''is that the one public building that is part of every neighborhood and every family's life -- the school -- bolts its doors tight every afternoon at 3:30 or 4:00 and every Friday for 48 hours.''

Gyms, libraries, nurse's offices and auditoriums that the public has already paid for are off limits. So Senator Bradley's crime-bill provision allows community groups to apply for grants to keep school facilities open and to fund mentoring programs by which local adults help youth from ages 5 to 18 with omework, sports programs, drama, arts -- virtually any kind of constructive activity.

His program has two goals -- not only to provide kids with hours of guidance and sanctuary, but also to tap the skills of local residents: accomplished artisans and storytellers, perhaps a grandfather who served in the military who'd make a good

study-hall proctor, a retired jazz musician to run a little combo, a retired athlete who'd like a chance to coach and be the male figure in kids' lives.

One can spot some safeguards such a program would need: limits on the amounts school janitors or custodians could ask for overtime work, a preference for volunteer or modestly paid local citizens rather than hiring teachers to work extra hours at union ,, pay scales.

But well run, such a program could reach millions of kids and work constructively to guide young lives and prevent crime.

The idea of community use of schools after hours is as American as apple pie. For dramatic performances, 4-H, homemaker, sewing and quilting clubs and more, schools were the center of early American rural life. Urban reformers urged the same for cities and by 1910 public schools in Boston, New York, Newark and Cincinnati were open evenings for youth and adult activities.

A number of steely capitalists saw the point too. In 1969, when he was a sprightly 94, I interviewed Charles Stewart Mott, then General Motors' largest stockholder, and one of America's wealthiest men. He told proudly how the Mott Foundation, which he founded, had successfully expanded the number of hours schools in Flint, Michigan, were open each year from 1,400 to 3,800 hours -- a program that was publicly praised by Eleanor Roosevelt. Keeping the schools open for community use provides ''a whale of an increase in the use of property,'' said Mott.

The Pew Partnership for Civic Change has been tracking communities' self-start school-opening efforts of the '90s. Waco, Texas, for example, is inaugurating a ''Lighted Schools'' program for middle-school kids. It includes adolescent health clinics, pre-employment skills training, multiple presentations by artists, museums and libraries, and local Baylor University students acting as tutors, counselors and role models for the Lighted School students.

Proving this will reduce crime is impossible. But building more and more prison cells hasn't worked either. So ask yourself: Is it worth the gamble to spend $100 million a year of scarce federal funds to keep schools open and serve kids we know could well be tempted into crime? Rather than ''City of Oz'' rhetoric, that's the real question.

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

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