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How to Take Back Our Streets

By Glenn F. Ivey
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page A25

For over 30 years the nation's criminal justice agenda has been stuck on a treadmill. At the local level, many communities, including mine, have become trapped in a cycle of reaction: A shocking, highly publicized slaying rivets the community and the media. It is followed a few days later by a candlelight vigil at which elected officials are criticized, then by an emotional funeral at which ministers call on the community to take back the streets. Sometimes a stop-the-violence campaign begins. But after about two weeks, the community gets back to business as usual and the media move on to the next tragic killing.

In Washington there's been a stalemate between liberals and conservatives on such important issues as the death penalty, mandatory minimum sentences, gun control and police misconduct. But neither side has advanced a proven, long-range strategy for reducing homicides -- the leading cause of death for young black men for nearly two decades. Clearly, a broader approach is long overdue.

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Fortunately, some successful models exist. New York's "broken windows" approach has generated well-documented gains. (The theory is based on the idea that signs of blight such as broken windows going unrepaired lead to more broken windows and eventually to an atmosphere in which crime can thrive.) But perhaps the most promising model is the "Boston strategy," which cut that city's youth homicides by two-thirds in two years and has produced similar results in Rochester, N.Y., and High Point, N.C. Local police and prosecutors collect details of a gang's crimes, present that information to criminal leaders, and tell them that if anyone in their group commits a serious crime, the entire group will be swiftly and harshly prosecuted for these offenses. They also inform them about social services agencies that can help with job training and placement, substance abuse treatment, temporary shelter, continuing education and counseling. In other words, they offer the carrot and threaten with the stick. The leaders are then sent back to their groups to convey the message.

When a group breaks the rules, law enforcement keeps its promise by locking up every member who has committed any crime, rather than focusing on only the single shooter or offender. This replaces the current brutal code of the streets with peer pressure to refrain from violence, resulting in dramatic decreases in homicides. The Boston strategy targets violent offender groups without burdening entire communities or requiring massive new funding that could burden already strained local budgets. A strong political commitment from local agencies to work together seems to be the most difficult part of the equation.

But the Boston strategy is no panacea. Federal and state officials need to end the partisan stalemate and support proven anti-crime efforts. Black leadership needs to bring all its power to bear on ending the fratricide in our streets. Here are some suggestions:

• Church: During the civil rights movement, black churches overcame disagreements and egos to become a potent, unified force to end racial segregation. Today some churches have individual programs aimed at reducing violence, but there's nothing approaching the coordinated movement of the 1960s. That has to change. In Boston, the clergy took to the streets, bringing moral guidance to unchurched offenders "where they are." We need that kind of effort nationwide.

• Elected officials: The number of black elected officials has exploded since enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which has led to dramatic strides in the push for equal justice and due process. Nevertheless, our criminal justice agenda has to expand beyond racial profiling, the death penalty or police misconduct. We also need to focus on immediately reducing the wholesale slaughter on our streets. First steps might include a push to continue funding Project Safe Neighborhoods and other federal grants that can help support effective local programs.

• Schools: In numerous communities, schools are clearly failing to educate many young black males. Class sizes are too large, teachers are overwhelmed, many students are disrespectful and unmotivated, and parents are sometimes disengaged or even contemptuous of teachers and administrators. Rather than remaining trapped in the old debate about vouchers and school choice, we should look at alternative schools, where specially trained teachers give disruptive or violent students the special attention they need. Cooperative, motivated students would then have a safer, more positive learning environment.

• Community: Each of us can make a difference, and all should try. Many young men who turn to crime could be redirected by a positive male influence in their lives. Coach a team, tutor at a local school or support a church group helping at-risk youth. Fraternities, men's groups and churches need to stand in the breach that has been created by two and three generations of dysfunctional families.

• Businesses: Crime goes down when employment goes up. Jobs are perhaps the best way to fight the allure of the streets. We need to expand training programs that can make at-risk youth employable. Then businesses need to give youth a fair chance in the workplace.

There's no quick solution. It has taken decades to get into this situation, and it will take time to work our way out. But the sooner we develop and implement a long-range strategy to reduce homicides, the sooner we'll be able to end the carnage in our streets.

The writer is state's attorney for Prince George's County.

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