Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could reduce this country's prison population by, say, at least half, not to mention take a huge swipe at violent crime? Or get little children out of the hell that all too often pretend to be families?
Actually, that's not a pipe dream. It's entirely possible. We pretty much already know what we would have to do to make it happen. The problem is, we choose not to acknowledge it because what it would require to start with is putting major resources into programs that we know work. And since there's no powerful lobbying group to pressure legislators and members of congress to allocate money for those programs, it's not likely to happen. It's just so much easier to look the other way, to pretend it is somebody else's problem. But the truth is, the problem belongs to all of us.
Anybody who is well-informed about the causes of crime, most especially violent crime, understands it relates to how a child is raised. While there are notable exceptions, homes that range from merely somewhat dysfunctional to downright brutal are almost always going to produce screwed-up children, who turn out to be screwed-up adults, even if they don't always turn out to be violent. Unfortunately though, it is often enough to make it in all our interests to do something about it.
There are worthy organizations that work diligently to change things. And they can be remarkably effective. The Georgia Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse is one. The Boys and Girls Club is another. But both organizations struggle constantly for funding. It is a bit like trying to stop the ocean tides with a teaspoon.
And of course, every state has child protection agencies. But like the volunteer groups, they are always severely underfunded and understaffed. Just as is our public education system. Everybody also pays pretty severely for those deficiencies, one way or another.
If you really don't give a darn about the suffering of children, the unspeakable things to which they are subjected, heck, just settle for selfish. Just think of the amount of money it costs us to deal with the crime and punishment system, or the very real possibility of becoming a victim. Prisons alone cost this country billions and billions every year. Really, with the recent wave of horrific violence in this country, which seems to be growing exponentially, one might be forgiven for wondering if the United States isn't becoming one big war zone.
Of course it would take at least a generation to accomplish much really meaningful. But can you imagine any goal that would be much worthier? And wouldn't you think that given the astronomical costs both financially and in pain and suffering we might agree to take a shot at it? And we have to start somewhere.
We debate endlessly what to do about gun violence, about what punishment is appropriate, the judicial system. But the one approach that might actually accomplish something for the long term we choose to ignore.
We need to start with the child protection system. Create a system that combines foster families with appropriate institutional settings. Provide specialists and exceptionally qualified house parents. Offer tutoring, medical, psychological and recreational services. Not just lip-service. Get serious. Put enough money into the system so that it really will be effective. Of course it would be very expensive to do it right. But just imagine the payoff: eventually a vastly reduced prison and judicial system, not to mention safe streets for a change.
Libby Davis worked for the Rockdale Citizen for 20 years as publisher before retiring in 1997. She is also an award winning columnist, editorial writer and occasional contributor to Georgia Trend magazine.