We, as public officials, speak a lot about prevention and we (myself included) are quick to rightly tout the need for more jobs, better schools (and a lower dropout rate), health care expansion, nonprofit intervention, re-entry programs and more recreation programs (among other programs or initiatives) as the way forward in reducing crime. I don’t disagree with any of those strategies for reducing the conditions that lead to crime, but they are, as a group, incomplete. The inconvenient truth that isn’t as politically comfortable to talk about is that we have untold numbers of parents that are becoming parents before they are ready or prepared to be. In short, no program, either government or nonprofit, can replace the void created by the absence of a good father in a household.
Annually, as you probably know, over 70 percent of births in the black community nationwide are out of wedlock. Study after study demonstrates (and our common sense tells us) the dramatic effect that this collapse in our family structure has had on education, the economy and criminal justice outcomes for youth, especially the absence of a good father in his son’s household. If we all want to come together on a prevention strategy, it has to include an all-hands-on-deck effort to cut the out-of-wedlock birth rate of the black community in half in the next 10 years, both locally and nationally (in addition to the other, more politically comfortable — yet expensive — efforts to prevent and reduce crime that I mentioned above).
The second inconvenient truth is that we have created an environment in our county that is too lenient on punishing crime in comparison with many of our neighboring jurisdictions, especially in Virginia. Countless numbers of county police officers, from near the top of the department to the rank and file, have communicated to me privately their frustration that it is very well-known among criminals that it is preferable to commit crime in Prince George’s County rather than in Virginia (or even in other neighboring Maryland jurisdictions) because we punish crime far less harshly here. There is less deterrence here to criminals because of this perception.
From my discussions with county law enforcement officers, who do an outstanding job in investigating and arresting perpetrators, this perception is driven by many factors, including more lenient sentencing levels in Prince George’s vs. neighboring jurisdictions, an excessively high criminal case load in comparison to the resources available in the judicial system and the view that criminals serve far less of their actual sentences in our county (including for violent crimes) compared with Virginia, for example, where they have truth-in-sentencing laws that require offenders to serve 85 percent of their actual sentence.
We as a community must have an honest conversation about this. Is our compassion killing us? As many politicians will tell you, we can’t incarcerate or imprison our way out of this problem. My response is: Well, of course, you’re right — we must also do all of the prevention driven approaches I previously mentioned; but we cant pretend as if deterrence and punishment aren’t extremely important, too. An all-of-the above strategy to address crime also requires effective deterrence and punishment. Deterrence is prevention, too. We do not yet have effective deterrence in comparison to our neighbors across the river because — and this is being honest — we do not like the idea of incarcerating the young men who are committing most of our violent crime and who are black like me (and my son and daughter).
But what about the young men and women who are being murdered in the meantime (who also look like my son and daughter)? In an effort to release offenders of violent crime sooner in the community than our neighboring jurisdictions, are we sacrificing the lives of other young men and women in the process? I think the answer is yes. When people use bad judgment to commit serious crimes that hurts others, and then serves their time, they deserve an opportunity to reenter society and become a contributing citizen. But only after they fairly serve the overwhelming majority (85 percent) of their time.
We must do more than speak with outrage. We must act with urgency, too.
Mel Franklin is a Prince George’s County councilman for District 9.
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