There has been a reinvention in how big city police work in North America, with tougher and softer approaches simultaneously being adopted. Tougher means more aggressive intervention, for example. arresting drug dealers for trespassing. Softer means community-friendly tactics: foot patrolling and problem-solving, counselling on child abuse, helping children with homework, playing basketball with youths, etc.
New York City's dramatically falling crime rates in the ‘90s have been linked with "simultaneity" -- many things happening at the same time: taking the most dangerous criminals off the street, decreasing numbers of young men 15-24, the crack epidemic was for a period fading.
The primary factor there appeared to be the triumph of the "broken windows" theory, which held that the best way to fight serious crime is to address the disorder that precedes it and weakens neighbourhoods - graffiti, wreaked cars left on streets, etc.
Computerized maps there tracked crime patterns. Precinct commanders and officers were made accountable for their crime rates. It worked: for two years, crime declined in all precincts; robberies were off by a third; and burglaries were down by a quarter.
The better new techniques in crime fighting also include mandatory community service instead of prison for non-violent criminals, special attention to young offenders and redesign of streets and houses to reduce criminal opportunities. There are justice intervention projects, which include programs for victim restitution, job placement, substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation and sentencing alternatives.
About 6% of boys of a given age will commit half or more of all serious crime produced by males of that age. As most criminal careers begin in juvenile years, it is important to identify the characteristics of these chronic offenders in order to devise and determine what kinds of early intervention programs might prove effective and prevent further delinquency.
There is evidence that less-costly youth crime prevention programs work over time. Research indicates that for every $1 spent on the early intervention program, almost $7 in savings to the public are generated by averting juvenile placements in youth detention facilities. Programs found to be effective in reducing delinquency are Head Start (pre-school) programs, programs of family visitation and family preservation among others.
Good quality pre-school programs in particular, have proven to be remarkably effective -- years later -- in reducing both the incidence and the severity of criminal behaviour among children who participated in them.
Doug McNally, who co-chaired our National Crime Prevention Council's prevention and children committee, said that politicians must realize the best and cheapest way of fighting crime is to have healthy children in sound families. Stressing that criminality takes root in disturbed, pre-school children from poorly functioning and often economically stressed families and that disruptive behaviour can be detected when such children first enter school, he believes that by the time they come to the attention of police by age 12 or 13 some may have already passed the point of no return.
McNally noted that many people support harsh treatment for young offenders over spending on crime prevention. It costs less than $10,000 per child a year in the Head Start program designed to help children at risk when they start school, but it costs $100,000 a year to keep a young offender in jail. Edmonton had 412 children in Head Start programs, but apparently there are another 3,000 children who need help.
Under a "Restorative Justice" program, perpetrators and victims are brought together so offenders can apologize to their victims face to face, make amends for transgressions, repay their victims and escape court proceedings and any record of the offence. It only applies to the "most minor offences" like shoplifting, mischief, vandalism and trespassing. Crowns would be required to arrange meetings between perpetrators and their victims to restore differences.
Dollars and Prevention
One study estimates that if we took $1 million and invested it in prison space for career criminals, the investment would prevent 50 crimes a year. If that same amount was used to monitor 12- and 13-year-old delinquents, it would prevent 72 crimes a year. If that million dollars was invested in incentives for young people to graduate from high school, 258 crimes a year would be prevented. In short, money spent on crime prevention should be seen as an investment.
Helping Abused Children
Often, while discussing youth offenders, it is overlooked that a high proportion of young people are victims of crime. One study showed that 23% of crime victims were between the ages of 12 and 19, double their representation in the population. Of every ten sexual assault victims, four are children, and another four are teenagers. Only two are adults. There is growing evidence that childhood victimization by adults may be a significant factor in criminal behaviour by youths and adults.
Many abused children grow up to be abusers. This discovery is one of the first to provide a biological explanation for the connection between violence in childhood and adulthood: children experiencing violence may become violent as their brain structure adapts to abuse.
Effective Crime Prevention
The basis for effective crime prevention across our country has already been laid; we have a breadth of talent and experience to develop a comprehensive anti-crime strategy that will make our communities safer. Decisive political leadership, sound and substantial funding and accountability are essential. It is essential that it be all-inclusive and many-sided; we must allow the voices of victims of crime, police, social activists, educators and ordinary Canadians to be heard.
Developing a coherent strategy and putting it into practice without delay will constitute an ultimate test of how we as a society treat crime, its causes and our own safety.