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What Is Your Problem, Baltimore?

Racism, lack of economic opportunity, community engagement, or something else?

Several overarching problems have been discussed in the wake of the recent upheaval in Baltimore. A fundamental systemic change is probably needed, but in what direction. Are these citywide problems between police and communities the result of social, racial, political, law enforcement, or economic problems, or perhaps a combination of all of the above? Depending on the answer to that question, the right and the left have different viewpoints. What we need is to examine data and research that is not politically driven to generate solutions.

Social and Educational Solutions
“The quality of public education should not depend on the economic or racial accident of the neighborhoods in which a child’s parents have chosen to live—or find they must live…” ~ 1969 decision in Swann by Federal District Judge James B. McMillan

Solving social and educational problems would be a great step forward. As we cut budgets for behavioral health, social and educational programs, their ability to serve all people equally as well is compromised. For example, the top crime and violence prevention programs are childcare and home visiting programs that involve young children and parents, and this is backed up by research. Why aren’t we creating these programs universally at one-tenth the cost of incarceration once these children grow up? Why do we want to spend ten times the money for a worse outcome? Would job skill training or training in entrepreneurship and a micro-loan have been a solution for Freddie Grey before the awful day he died? We will never know.

The US educational system is less effective that many other democratic nations around the world. Some teachers and administrators have been responsible for fraudulent student test scores on required exams. Schools need to adapt, currently they do not teach youth to think for themselves and be good citizens, and we do not teach for today’s labor market. Our educational system needs major reform and most people know that. It is not always about the money, but rather changing the way we teach and they way we learn.

We need community workers organizing young people and providing meaningful stimulating activity. Young people need positive activities and adult guidance. Several ministers in Baltimore have shown us that they can harness the heart and energy of the community for good. A referral to behavioral health at the first sign of trouble before they are suspended or expelled from school is another solution using school based behavioral health. Schools need to understand that it is just as important to be a good citizen as it is to be educated in core course material.

Racial Solutions
“We shall overcome someday.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King

Does racial bias still exist in opportunities, resources, education, and law enforcement? Yes, indeed it does. Some police departments have tried to wipe out racial bias in policing, but for some jurisdictions, it is alive and well. Therefore, training must be instituted and police culture must be monitored and changed where needed.

Are there racial differences in levels of good education, poverty, opportunities, policing, decaying schools and neighborhoods, and activities for young people? Is it racial or is it poverty driven? The truth is that it is probably both.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” ~ Lord Acton

One problem underlying these issues is the political divide over spending money on services for people to better their lives. One party says that we can no longer afford our debt so we must cut the budget. The other party says we need social programs to raise people above the poverty line and out of despair and give them an opportunity to fulfill the American dream.

We can rise above this battle by looking at cost efficiency and effectiveness. The Affordable Care Act has already reduced the overall cost of healthcare by 20% and millions more people are insured because prevention works and is cost effective. So let us prioritize cost and outcome effectiveness and quit wasting money on over-incarceration (very expensive) instead of programs to help people achieve behavioral health, job skills, parenting skills, healthy neighborhoods and schools, and child care (which is a fraction of the cost).

Law Enforcement Practices and the Criminal Justice System
“They’re thugs.” ~ Multiple Talking Heads

Some cities have used aggressive policing for minor infractions in order to “clean up the streets.” That tactic should undergo extreme scrutiny and probably be eliminated. The result is that the US, the richest nation in the world, incarcerates proportionally more people and has more violence than any other democratic nation in the world.

The answer to incarcerating less people is full access to behavioral health treatment, top notch schools, treatment instead of expulsion from school, job training and opportunities, micro-loans and training in entrepreneurialism AND police engagement with the community. A very innovative program in community policing has been very effective in diverting families of an offender to treatment and social services instead of incarceration.

Minor crimes probably mean that there is an underlying social problem that is solvable. It is more effective and cost efficient to solve the social problem with a social program than to use arrest and incarceration and potential injuries to people and community goodwill. A great example is the war on drugs. Drug use is an addictions treatment problem. Treat the addicts and create alternative ways for people to make a living and let’s see if it has a better impact on the US drug trade than incarceration.

“Reducing income inequality could prolong periods of economic growth.” ~ Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz

The greater the gap between the “Haves” and the “Have Not’s”, and the more difficult it is to climb the socio-economic ladder, the more likely it is that unrest will erupt in some way. However, projects such as investing in America’s infrastructure could put many people back to work and rebuild our cities, roads and bridges. It is not just the amount of money we spend, but spending it effectively for multiple purposes and it puts money back in the tax coffers.

As we saw in Baltimore, a community can, and will come together to work with police and government in a crisis. Community leaders should be engaged with government officials and police before the next crisis occurs. Everyone needs to listen to each other and ideas about what is needed in communities.

Written by: Dr. Kathryn Seifert

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