It has been said that a problem well stated is half solved. Have we clearly stated America’s crime problem?
We have a solution - harsh punishment for criminal conduct. But does harsh punishment solve the problem? From the death penalty to mandatory sentencing guidelines, America’s prisons are over flowing. With this reality in mind, I simply ask, “Is America’s costly criminal justice system making our country safer?
I want to guide you as if you are a virtual artist by asking six questions. The brush to paint this picture is in your mind:
1. Are criminals in America primarily male or female?
2. Are America’s criminals, young (15 years to 25 years) or older than 25?
3. Do criminals come from stable two-parent families or single-parent families?
4. Prior to committing a serious crime are they in poverty or above the poverty level?
5. Are criminals in America well educated or high school drop outs?
6. Do criminals in America have good jobs?
From your painting, imagine 1,000 young men, who are unemployed, uneducated, living in poverty and being raised by a single mom moving into your neighborhood. What would be the consequences?
For a moment let me repaint the picture in your mind. The picture I’m painting contains women, 55 years of age with a college degree. They have a productive, high-paying jobs and are married living with their stable family. What would be the consequences if these women stepped out of my picture and into your neighborhood?
Do you see the dichotomy in the social fabric of America? More importantly, do you see the 55-year-old African American women in my painting. Did a thousand different pictures flash through your mine before I pointed out that my painting was an unexpected portrait of our social fabric.
As the “Black Lives Matter” movement has evolved; as the disproportional incarceration rate of African Americans continues; have we failed to clearly see the portrait of America? Is race and ethnicity invisible in poverty, invisible in education, invisible in employment, and consequently invisible in opportunity — or is it only invisible in our hearts?
It doesn’t matter if you are Hispanic, Asian, Native American, African American or Caucasian. If you have the traits listed in my six questions, you will have a substantially higher probability of ending up in prison or on death row.
If you went to your doctor because you had a high temperature, and all the doctor did was treat the symptom, and not discover the cause, would you lose confidence in your doctor? A high temperature is a symptom, it is not the cause.
Like a high temperature in an individual is a symptom, the crime rate is a symptom of the health of a community. The six questions begin to approach the causes of crime. Should we ignore the core causes and continue to treat the symptom? In health, just treating a symptom does not cure the illness.
America is fixated on the symptom, which is our crime rate, and can’t picture the causes. From these words, can we paint a portrait of a cure for both crime and for racism? The brush is in your hand.
Robert C. Wadman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the Criminal Justice Department at Weber State University, Ogden.