Potent crime-fighting weapon: basketball

August 16, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Conservatives have been railing for days now against the modest prevention measures included in President Clinton's crime bill. That bill -- tabled by Congress last week -- would have devoted less than a quarter of its $32 billion budget to programs such as a midnight basketball league for inner city youth, violence prevention and anti-gang projects, drug treatment for inmates, and employment opportunities for young adults.

"Pork barrel politics," scoffed the critics. "Liberal hogwash." "An attempt to bring back the failed social engineering policies of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society."

Countered the president: "[Opponents are from] places where all the children can go to the ballpark, where they've got a place to go swimming. They literally cannot imagine what it is like for some of our children. And so they say, 'Oh, these programs to let kids play basketball at midnight are nothing but pork.' "

The president has vowed to resurrect his crime bill, social spending intact. The opposition warns that the bill will never pass while it contains such "do-gooder" provisions. And so, the debate rages on.

Yesterday, I went to the Madison Recreation Center in East Baltimore, in search of another perspective.

"Is all this a waste of money?" I ask the director. "Would our streets be safer if we put all of our money into more police and more prisons?"

William Wells shakes his head sadly. "Man, that's crazy, just crazy," he says mournfully. "Kids need an outlet. They need to have something constructive to do. Otherwise, they'll just get into trouble. That's just plain, everyday common sense."

We were standing on the edge of a fenced playground near the front of the recreation center. Behind us, a group of youngsters had started an impromptu basketball game: Shouting and laughing, shoving the ball in the direction of the distant hoop with the two-handed push shot of 8-year-olds. Other kids, wearing team jerseys, were arriving in time for soccer practice.

It was a pleasant, heartwarming scene -- until you compared this threadbare facility in East Baltimore with its well-appointed counterparts in the suburbs. Are suburban parents wasting their money, too?

William Wells doesn't think so: "Every parent understands the need to keep children constructively occupied; I don't know why it is so hard to get the point across when it comes to inner city kids. All I know is, we conducted a Midnight Madness basketball tournament recently and police tell me crime actually dropped. Kids here are hungry for alternatives."

The Madison Recreation Center sits in the middle of one of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. It is a patchwork community marked by neatly kept homes and abandoned rowhomes; churches and liquor stores. In East Baltimore, hard-working men and women work desperately to sweep drugs and crime out of the area. Yet every day, scores of other men and women slouch at street corners with the red-eyed, heavy-lidded gaze of addicts. Gunshots echo through the night. Occasionally, an innocent child is wounded or killed by a stray bullet.

Maybe many of the young men and women in East Baltimore would have drifted into drugs and violence even if they had been given recreational alternatives when younger.

A national survey published last week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington reported that "low-income, central city neighborhoods with a high density of young people are the least likely to offer a rich and varied array of youth services." Many urban neighborhoods make valiant efforts to provide recreation and employment for children, researchers found. But those efforts are woefully underfunded and treated with suspicion -- if not hostility -- by the community at large.

Sadly, even the president's crime bill would have put most of its resources into crowd-pleasing, "get-tough" provisions: More money to build state and federal prisons, more mandatory sentences, an expansion of the federal death penalty.

But conservatives seem to begrudge even paltry amounts for crime prevention.

Doing good for their children becomes do-gooding for ours. Makes me want to weep. Makes me want to weep out loud.

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