Fighting Crime Together

In more ways than one, we're all in this together. Crime - and the fear of crime - is changing the way we live. In high-crime areas, the possibility of becoming a police statistic imprisons some residents in their homes from sundown to sunup. In neighborhoods with low crime rates, fear arouses visions of relocation or increased police patrols.

Whether we live in an inner-city neighborhood plagued with the street violence that drugs and all-too-obtainable guns bring, or whether we live in pleasant, well-maintained neighborhoods, crime affects us all. The 254 homicides, 602 rapes, 10,835 assaults, 9,057 robberies and 18,349 burglaries that shook Long Beach area communities in 1992 have invaded our consciousness, violating a sense of safety and well-being.The havoc created by hard-core street criminals, many of them gang members, is reminiscent of the 1920s, when organized crime ruled urban American, machine-gunning the lawful and unlawful alike.

We should, of course, cheer the recommendations of stiffer penalities for violent crime, letting criminals know they will get longer sentences without possibility of parole. Just as Al Capone and other gangsters of the Roaring '20s had to be taught that society would no longer tolerate being held hostage, today's purveyors of violence must get the same message.

Before we see this as a final solution, however, we'd better calculate the cost. Already, the state spends more than $2 billion each year on its prison system. Additional millions will be needed to build even more prisons, since repeat offenders are now often released early simply because there is no room to house them. Dwindling resources means that instead of building new roads, bridges and other infrastructure improvements to make the state attractive to new business growth, the prison industry will get first shot at tax dollars.

The education and health-care budgets also might have to get in line behind the prison budget, increasing the number of children whose lives resemble those already behind bars. Since no one is born a thief or murderer, it might be wise to search for and implement a remedy for the root causes of street crime.

In the Press-Telegram series on crime, a former gang member says he joined the P.J. Crips because, "That was the only thing to do. Sell drugs, rob, steal, do drive-bys. I got tired of waiting on the first and the 15th (of each month) to get something to eat." The link between poverty, poor education and crime has been repeatedly documented by criminal justice experts. That doesn't mean that everyone who is poor grows up to be a criminal. It does mean that poverty is fertile ground for young people who see few other options.

Gilbert Geis, criminal justice professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, said some young people gravitate toward crime because it's all around them. In fact, white-collar criminals - embezzlers, corrupt public officials and those who commit fraud - become role models for some young criminals. They idolize those who mastermind grand embezzlement schemes, which amounts to $200 billion or more a year. Without education, however, street criminals can't follow in the footsteps of Charles Keating or Ivan Boesky. These semi-literate street hoodlums commit the crimes they can - drug dealing, prostitution, burglary and murder. They are a scary reflection of a society that accepts business ethics such as "dog eat dog."

Of course, white-collar criminals aren't lurking on street corners, waiting to knife a senior citizen for the $4 in her purse. And even the toxic chemicals some of them dump into streams or along roadways don't have the immediate impact of a robber in your face. But the two are linked. A war on poverty, deglamorization of white-collar crime and stiffer penalties for violent crime are worth trying in the fight against crime.

We're all a part of the problem. We can all be a part of the solution.