A violent generation comes of age, and we are not prepared

January 30, 1996|By Howard Bluth

CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that if only parents were more diligent in supervising their children, we wouldn't be facing the epidemic of juvenile crime currently sweeping the nation.

Don't try selling this to Inez Coley, whose 10-year-old son, Issac, was recently arrested for selling three rocks of crack cocaine. Their story appeared in The Sun a few weeks ago.

Responding to suggestions that she might have been too lenient a parent, Ms. Coley told of an incident when she tried to assert herself with Issac, who was hanging out with some friends in front of their East Baltimore home.

One of the older boys ''got right in my face,'' she said. ''He told me I could make any kind of rules I wanted inside my house, but out on the street, they made the rules.''

So much for conventional wisdom.

The code of the streets

Of course there are irresponsible parents, and not just in the inner city. But in the city, where social problems are pervasive, the streets have a code of their own, often so threatening that even the most conscientious parent can be rendered helpless.

''What was I supposed to do?'' asked Ms. Coley. ''I couldn't lock him up in his room 24 hours a day.''

Issac represents the youngest of a new breed of juvenile offender, described by Princeton University criminologist John DiIulio as lacking significant adults in their lives, and having little capacity for remorse.

Their numbers, according to the Justice Department, have swelled in the past 10 years, and their crimes have become more deadly.

Homicides among 14- to 17-year-olds have increased by 165 percent during the period. Nearly one in four arrests for weapons violations now involves a juvenile. And all projections indicate the xTC problem will get worse in the future.

''There's a tornado coming,'' Mr. DiIulio says. ''We can't stop it; we must prepare for it.''

Preparing for disaster

But it's unclear what he means by preparation. We're certainly not going to start incarcerating 10-year-olds for selling a few rocks of crack.

We can hardly do that with adults anymore given the bloated state of our courtrooms and jails. And the message is not lost on Issac, who made it very clear that he'd do just about anything to -- as he put it -- ''get paid.''

What conventional wisdom fails to consider is that when the numbers get this large, we're no longer simply dealing with problems of individual deviance. We are now faced with a collective phenomenon, born of collective conditions which make crime a rational choice for all too many young men.

As Marc Naison wrote in the journal Reconstruction, today's inner city is full of youngsters who feel ''predatory activities are morally acceptable and economically necessary'' (a mindset which -- except for the implied violence -- differs little from that of the modern corporate boardroom).

But while the problem has be- come collective, we remain wedded to solutions that focus exclusively on the individual, as if such approaches could possibly compensate for the consequences of an environment permeated by guns, drugs and poverty.

So each morning we send Issac off to a therapeutic day school in the suburbs, where he receives lots of individual attention for his personal problems.

Each evening, we return him to the mean streets where he lives, and where he promptly loses whatever therapeutic gains he may have made earlier in the day. And we wonder why our efforts result in such little progress.

The power of poverty

To be sure, our ''individualized'' goals for Issac remain valid. We want him to be a morally responsible person, to respect the lives and property of others, to become a contributing member of society.

K? But such outcomes do not occur in a vacuum, much less an en

vironment where drive-by shootings are an ever-present danger.

You'd think we would have learned by now that oppressive social conditions always get the upper hand.

It's not as if the lesson hasn't been taught.

In the late 1970s, when the nation's enthusiasm for the war on poverty began to cool, and seeds of large-scale family breakdown began to sprout, the Carnegie Council on Children sounded the alarm with a publication called ''All Our Children: The American Family Under Pressure.'' Its most important conclusion is more relevant today than when first issued:

''As long as our economic system permits millions to live in

poverty, and as long as our political system is not committed to the elimination of poverty, no program of personal reform, moral uplift, blame, therapy, philanthropy or early education can hope to eliminate the enormous harm to the next generation that poverty causes.''

And, we might add, the enormous harm the next generation will perpetrate upon the rest of us.

Well, the next generation is here.

A myopic view

And little Issac, who didn't even exist when those prophetic words were penned, is now one of its card-carrying members. It is a generation with unprecendented problems, requiring unprecedented solutions.

But the powers that be seem utterly incapable of reading the new reality. How else explain their myopic insistence on massive budget cuts, which can only aggravate the collective conditions responsible for so much of our crime.

Meanwhile, Issac is growing older. And his mother can't keep him locked up 24 hours a day.

Howard Bluth writes from Baltimore.

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