Prevention: Crime's Cure

FLANKED by law enforcement officers and repeating the 30-year-old ritual of his predecessors, President Clinton has launched yet another "get tough on crime" war against the wrong enemy, on the wrong battlefield, with the wrong weapons. Missing is any new vision of how to reduce and prevent violence, substance abuse, and crime.

Putting 50,000 or even 100,000 more police officers on the street will enlarge law enforcement agencies but not protect the communities where crime and the fear of crime are rampant.

It is yet uncertain if community policing will help; the last three decades have demonstrated that the primary prevention agents are not the police but parents, educators, and health officials.

The Brady handgun bill and the ban on importing assault weapons will have no important impact on reducing and preventing gun-related violence. A five-day handgun waiting period is far less effective than the instantaneous check system now implemented in Illinois.

Today there are 200 million to 400 million privately owned firearms in the United States, yet the US is the only industrial nation with no effective handgun regulation.

This country requires a comprehensive strategy, including a ban on the importation of all firearms, as well as prohibition of, or taxation on, the manufacture and sale of specific weapons.

A strict weapons licensing system and consumer safety regulations against unlocked and loaded weapons must be implemented, along with a parental responsibility law for the use of weapons by minors. Hospitals need a national firearm fatality reporting system. Also needed are a massive weapons buy-back and recycling plan; universal counseling for the perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of life-threatening violence; and compensation for gun-violence victims.

Finally, we must have a major initiative that redefines attitudes toward guns in film and television; a consumer safety warning against "war toys" and toy guns; a violence-prevention curriculum in every school; and an appraisal of how US militarism contributes to domestic attitudes toward guns, conflict, and aggression.

Contrary to trends in every other industrial country, the US is expanding capital punishment through unfunded federal mandates to the states, even though the death penalty has no deterrent effect and is three times more costly than life imprisonment without parole.

Endemic interpersonal violence cannot be separated from endemic institutional violence. The unprecedented rates of child abuse, wife beating, abuse of the elderly, and assault or homicide are inseparable from the diverse forms of institutional violence.

The US has more violence than any other country. At least 1 million Americans die prematurely each year as a result of homicide or suicide.

Canada, with a population of nearly 30 million, had 753 homicides in 1991. But Chicago, with a population of 3 million, had 927 homicides, 174 more than all of Canada.

The United States requires a comprehensive violence, substance abuse, and crime reduction and prevention strategy implemented at the federal, state, county, city, community, family and individual levels by both the public and the private sectors working together.

The core components of this strategy must include (1) social investment in infants, children and youths, families, education, health care, housing, employment, urban infrastructure, economic investment and citizenship; (2) separate prevention plans for violence, drugs, and crime that are rooted in public health models; and (3) a redefinition of the current juvenile and criminal justice services.

SUCH efforts require coordination from the White House to the precinct station. This is a commitment to invest in productive people, functional families, and active citizens. The US spends only 3 percent of all federal dollars on prevention, and mostly on disease control.

Though children and adolescents constitute 40 percent of the population, the US spends only 10 percent of every dollar on its youths.

Whether or not Attorney General Janet Reno, who advocates prevention and a national violence commission, can divert the war on crime toward a prevention infrastructure remains to be seen.

The challenge for the Clinton administration is not to "get tough on crime" but to get serious about crime prevention and to rethink our failing relationships and flawed institutions.

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