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Book Review: Smart on Crime by Kamala D. Harris

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One ongoing theme that runs through Smart on Crime is this: meaningful education at all levels of life can affect crime statistics. This applies:

  • – to both children and adults
  • – to those who have committed crimes and are incarcerated
  • – to those who have been released from prison
  • – to those desperate people who may consider criminal activity to help them survive

Smart on Crime wants parents and educators and the law to keep children in school. More than likely, truancy in neighborhoods where crime is rampant allows children to model what they see. It may be an act as simple as watching someone shoplift or more serious like stealing a car that inspires a truant child to first steal a candy bar.

 So often, truant children learn that crime does pay.  Those kids who come from poverty stricken families where drugs have become a way of life, often become runners for druggies to earn money. They easily end up hooked on drugs compounding their problems. Why attend school if a miserable home life can be remedied by “taking” what you want and lifting your spirits with drugs?

 

As an educator, myself, I can understand Smart on Crime‘s wish to keep kids in school where they learn skills needed for a promising life based on their talents. But fufilling that desire is not easy. In Pittsburgh’s Public Schools, social workers, counselors, and psychologists are so overwhelmed with school duties, they deal with truancy, particularly at the high school level, when time permits.

In many cases, the only deterrent to truancy is fining parents. Smart on Crime would opt for more effective school and community programs and enough trained personnel to intervene. In 2007, the budget for military might ($548.8 billion) far exceeded money legislated for education ($89.9 billion).

 

Now, as District Attorney of San Francisco, author Kamala Harris has spent the last twenty years of her life fighting crime. She has dealt with some of the most heinous crimes including murder and rape. She would advocate that, yes, there are humans who commit crimes so hideous that they belong in prison for a very long time if not for life.

 

But Smart on Crime focuses on inmates jailed for less serious offences: stealing, drug possession/abuse, larceny, spouse abuse, DUI, molestation, prostitution, and a host of similar crimes. So often, with nothing else to occupy their time, these offenders spend their days in prison planning their next heist or unlawful act to get back from society what they feel they’ve been denied. In San Francisco, Ms. Harris has instituted a Back on Track program to turn non-violent offenders into law abiding citizens.

Smart on Crime would advocate meaningful programs in prisons that would provide hope and a new attitude toward life for the day these offenders are released. Recidivism is rampant, but in a way, that is society’s crime. Released people must have hope. They must believe they can succeed. Their egos must be built up while in prison to become strong enough to face a world outside prison — one that looks upon a person with a criminal history as an incurable cancer to society.

This is where churches, community agencies, and counseling services, must interact to insure the newly released have some haven to go to for guidance and psychological counseling, while they face the difficulties of starting a new life. Releasing prisoners without some useable skill in today’s workplace is a sure guarantee he or she will return.

 

I think Kamala Harris would be thrilled to hear about an effort here in Pittsburgh to address children who have no place to go but the streets; often they gang together and fall by the wayside.

 

In Faison Middle School on busy Frankstown Avenue, there is a program for kids who are in some way needy. It is called Pittsburgh Youth Intervention Project. One of the tutors there, Astrid Ware, tells me that some children arrive in the morning and don’t leave until seven or seven-thirty in the evening. While there, if need be, some kids receive breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It provides a place for them to go and interact with others rather than roam the streets. I worked personally with Astrid several years ago. Her attitude, and that of the school’s other teachers, have made the Faison Middle School building into the kind of successful retreat-home that Smart on Crime talks about.

 

This book is cleverly laid out so that its first twelve chapters discuss myths about crime. Some of these myths: Most Crime Is Violent; Some Victims Just Ask for It; Deterrence Always Works; Money Spend on Prevention Steals Money from Finding and Punishing Criminals.

 

The second twelve chapters explain smart ways to crack the crime pyramid. Some issues it discusses: Preventing and Reducing Violence; Dealing with Truancy; Prostitution; Returning Offenders; Protecting Witnesses; Gangs.

 

If you are looking for a read which is truthful about crime and the frustrations of dealing with it, read Smart on Crime. I would highly recommend it to parents, ministers, educators, law enforcement agencies, and most importantly — politicians.  These legislators are the key to providing critical funds necessary to build the programs advocated by Kamala Harris — programs like those in Faison Middle School. If we are to put a real dent in crime, it must begin with our youth.

 

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