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Urban justice neglects causes

Guest Column/Jerome D. Abernathy

"Look at it from my point of view for a minute. Let's say I go and get wiped. Then I ain't got no more needs, right? All my problems are solved. I don't need no more money, no more nothing, right?

Okay, supposin' I get popped, shot in the spine and paralyzed for the rest of my life -- that could happen playin' football, you know. Then I won't need a whole lot of money because I won't be able to go no place and do nothin', right?

So, I'll be on welfare, and the welfare check is all the money I'll need, right?

Now if I get busted and end up in the joint pullin' a dime and a nickel, like I am, then I don't have to worry about no bucks, no clothes. I get free rent and three squares a day. So you see, Mr. Brown, I really can't lose."

-- A young man from New York's inner city interviewed by Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land.

All of the police, guns, and jails in the world cannot solve the problem of urban violent crime.

Ever since Bernhard Goetz pumped four youths full of lead in the New York subway, much has been written about violent crime. The majority centers on the gut-level reactions of those victimized.

So-called law and order politicians rally around popular themes: mandatory sentencing, more prisons, and the death penalty.

It's true that our society faces a crime problem that requires immediate solutions. But rather than being comprehensive, long-term solutions, what these people suggest is analogous to treating the symptom instead of the disease.

In order to combat street crime, we must take action to eliminate its root causes instead of reacting to its consequences. It's not enough to try to deter crime and punish criminals. That alone will not eliminate the factors in our society that produce criminal behavior.

Much of today's urban crime is committed by youth that belong to the urban underclass. This underclass is not delineated along racial lines, but along economic lines.

Spawned by societies' neglect, these people live in ghettos where the mores and survival skills differ drastically from those of society in general.

Their language, mannerisms and outlook are antithetical to what it takes to excel in society. The people are unemployed because they are not employable and that produces the frustration, anger, and idleness that leads to crime.

When one's life is surrounded by an environment as harsh as that faced by today's urban youth, the penalties that normally serve as deterrents fall on deaf ears.

We need comprehensive solutions to deal with crime and eliminate the factors that perpetuate crime.

One part of the solution can be programs like the successful Project Headstart. Far from being just a reading program, Headstart instilled values into youth early in life. Programs like this can help them deal with their lives.

Comprehensive solutions will not be easy and, in the short run, they will seem expensive.

But, given the economic and psychological costs of an eternal crime wave, it will be a bargain in comparison. If our elected officials could muster the political courage to develop long-term solutions instead of politically expedient fixes, we can make our city streets safe for everyone.