Turning around lost youth in ravaged areas

February 23, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

CAN WE build on recent drops in violent crime to construct a safer society for the 21st century?

The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, named for the brother of the late president, has a suggestion on how to do it.

Across the nation's poorest neighborhoods, the Washington-based foundation would open several thousand "safe havens" for neighborhood youth, combined with police ministations on the model of the Japanese "kobans."

Kobans are neighborhood-based police booths manned by officers on long-term assignment. One officer is called an omawarisan, literally Honorable Mr. Walk-About, who is expected visit each local household and business once a year or more.

A foreign view

Kuniyasu Tsuchida, the Tokyo police chief in the late '70s, told me how shocked he'd been, visiting this country, to see so few police officers walking through neighborhoods. "There were only patrol cars, and they had no way of knowing what was going on inside buildings except through emergency calls," he said.

Building safer communities isn't exclusively police work, however. So, in the '80s, the Eisenhower Foundation started dispatching teams of U.S. police leaders to examine the Japanese model; it wisely included leaders of nonprofit, youth development groups based in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. Often, 12,000 miles from home, the police and grass-roots leaders bonded and embraced the idea.

And now, from San Juan to Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Memphis, Little Rock and Columbia, S.C., the foundation can point to successful models in which the koban ministation idea ++ has been merged with the concept of a safe haven -- a place where children ages 6 to 16 -- can retreat after school, evenings, on weekends.

Often from disrupted homes, the youth find a safe anchor. Sports, drill teams, Cub Scouts, job training, help with homework, editing a community newspaper, neighborhood cleanups, safety and beautification projects (such as flower gardens planted in senior citizens' yards) -- any or all may be offered.

Also, police officers often become mentors for the youth. In some programs, police officers visit the young people's homes to establish direct contact with parents.

With a measure of order and caring discipline in their lives, the young people tend to flourish and mature. And in a world in which many of their older brothers and sisters have fallen into careers of crime, often serving long prison sentences, they learn to respect and stay on the right side of the law.

The formula, in many ways, is close to traditional settlement houses and boys and girls clubs. Including the police, often seen as the "enemy" of low-income communities, clearly adds value.

The cost? About $80,000 to $100,000 of nonpolice costs for each safe haven each year, mainly for a civilian director and a couple of aides.

The Eisenhower Foundation claims demonstrable results in its new report, "Youth Investment and Police Mentoring." In four cities' target neighborhoods -- San Juan, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago -- where the foundation used government money and its own to test the program in the early '90s, serious crime declined at least 22 percent and by as much as 27 percent over three years. Any decrease in crime in nearby neighborhoods, or the entire city, was tiny in comparison.

But it's folly, argues Eisenhower Foundation President Lynn Curtis, to think enough quality volunteers can be recruited to get the same results that qualified paid staff, working collaboratively with the police, can produce.

Indeed, Justice Department funding was cut off in the third year of the four-city koban safe haven experiment. Volunteers, where they could be found, had to be substituted for paid staff. The result, in each city: Crime stopped declining significantly.

A need for professionals

A figure such as retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell may champion volunteerism, notes Ms. Curtis, but few suburbanites will volunteer for serious inner-city duty, and local residents' lives are already under too much pressure.

Ms. Curtis says a combination of strategic planning and decently paid professionals will be needed to turn around lost youth in ravaged communities.

In an era of lingering public hostility to federal social spending, some people may write off that argument as reconstructed liberalism. The idea of directing multiple new billions of federal money toward a social goal seems strangely out of date. And most of us believe volunteerism can and should be expanded.

It's tough to argue, however, that prevention is much smarter than a cure.

We have before us clear proof that a partnership of kobanlike community policing ministations and safe havens run by grass-roots organizations does work.

JTC L The formula rings true for liberals and conservatives alike.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column on urban issues.

Pub Date: 2/23/98

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