Every few months, it seems as if we read headlines about upticks in youth crime – from carjackings to prison escapes to shootings. Even though our elected officials express concern and a sense of urgency, they bicker about which institution is to blame; and the crisis soon fades from view without any meaningful reform.
We have been talking about “reform” in the criminal justice world for over 20 years. Yet we still see persistently high crime rates and little change. Why? We don’t support youth and families. We don’t need “reform,” we need significant economic investment in our families and young people.
The institutions currently debating who’s to blame for the recent crime spree are all reactive: the DA, the police and the sheriff. None of these groups can stop crime before it occurs. They react once a crime has already been committed. Reforming these institutions, along with throwing more funding and equipment their way, will not fundamentally change the dynamics that lead to youth crime and violence. We need investment in people. And that means significant increases in funding from the federal level on down.
What kind of message does it send to our families and young people when our federal representatives can pass an infrastructure bill, but they can’t garner enough support for what matters most: daycare, education, affordable housing, vocational training, and the other programs that ease the burden on families and communities?
We live in a city facing serious poverty, especially in the African American community. But the city has become increasingly unaffordable, especially for workers earning close to minimum wage. Rents continue to rise as residents continue to struggle to recover from the effects of Hurricane Ida. The pandemic has thrown an already precarious employment situation into further disarray, especially in the service industry. It has also disrupted formal and informal daycare arrangements as families struggle to find childcare and keep themselves healthy and COVID-free. These dynamics lead to desperation, and desperation fuels crime.
Take a look at the city budget. There is no major funding for daycares or job training. We are not subsidizing rent or seriously investing in affordable housing. We are not creating innovative summer and after school programs. Instead, we divert money to the police, the sheriff, and other reactive institutions, which have been mired in scandal and do little to help families and young people in need.
The City Council isn’t going to solve youth crime and violence with a debate. The police aren’t going to solve it with body cameras and curfews. We don’t need magic, empty promises, or wishful thinking to shift crime. We have tried those things before. We need to invest in our youth, but true investment in our young people requires more money than the city has. We need investment from the federal and state governments, too. More importantly, we need a shift in our priorities. There is no other option if we are as genuinely concerned about the crime rate as we claim. We just need to put money where it counts: to support our communities, families and youth.
Ernest Johnson is the co-founder and director of Ubuntu Village NOLA, a non-profit organization that fights for transformational justice for children and communities.
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