Making the Streets Safe Again -- Quickly

Human rights? Ha! Due process? Bite your tongue! When it comes to dealing with youthful offenders, Edna Buchanan doesn't waste time with the little things.

Juvenile crime. Everyone is talking about it. Or shouting about it. Everyone has an opinion about its causes. Everyone has ideas about how to prevent it, about how to end it. And rarely do two people view any of this in exactly the same way. It's definitely a complex subject.

Radio and television generally have difficulty with such complex subjects, but there are exceptions. National Public Radio's weekday program Talk of the Nation is one of them. (It airs from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. on WLRN-FM, 91.3.) Host Ray Suarez welcomes discussion topics that would intimidate many broadcasters.

And so no one should have been surprised when, on Thursday, February 17, Suarez dove into the intractable problem of kids and crime. What did come as a surprise, however, was that one of Suarez's guests on the program actually had answers -- practical, rational, effective answers to this perplexing malady that tears at the very fabric of our society.

In Miami, of course, a workable solution to juvenile crime would be considered an absolute miracle. With nothing less than the region's economy at stake, the prospect of no more tourist murders and no more bad publicity would be a dream come true. And from what genius did Suarez elicit this profound insight? Why, none other than our own Edna Buchanan, the former Miami Herald crime reporter who is frequently cited by national journalists as an expert witness to Miami's mayhem.

As a public service to all those who have fretted over youth, crime, and this city's future, we offer highlights from that thoughtful discussion, and suggest that it may be a turning point, a watershed in the battle to restore Miami's good name.

Ray Suarez begins by introducing the guests: Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, and Buchanan, who, he notes, "has seen the effects of juvenile crime and the young offenders themselves firsthand as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Miami Herald. She's also a novelist. Her latest book is Miami, It's Murder."

Suarez: Well, this is a tough one, Edna Buchanan, which way to go with a problem that has no signs of solving itself.

Buchanan: Right. The [juvenile justice] system as it is today is nothing more than a minor inconvenience to some of these kids who are the most dangerous people in America. I mean, you look in their eyes and there's nobody home. I mean, nothing there. And if they are not born with a conscience, if their parents don't instill it, you know, forget the public school system, because the teachers I know are just trying to stay alive. The only thing that will keep them on the straight and narrow is the fear of punishment, and the system as it is today doesn't have that. There is no fear of punishment. It's nothing more than a minor inconvenience to them. They laugh at the system. And they are out there, they're mobile, they're hunting, and we're the prey.

Suarez: But there's no indication from anything I've read that there is a direct relationship between punishment and deterrence, that either in adults or in juveniles the idea of hard time translates into better behavior.

Buchanan: Well, I think it surely -- just as they say capital punishment isn't a deterrent, but it certainly is to the people that you give it to. They don't do it again. And if they got these kids into some sort of program early, where they learned discipline -- even these boot camp-style programs would probably be really good -- they would develop some pride in themselves. As it stands now, we're barricaded in our homes and they own the streets.

Suarez mentions that adult prisons are not "uplifting" and not good at rehabilitation. Buchanan cuts him off.

Buchanan: But it's good for them to be there so we can walk the streets safely.

Suarez argues that there's a difference between a sixteen-year-old offender and someone who is forty.

Buchanan: There are many sixteen-year-olds that are too far gone, there are some twelve-year-olds that are too far gone. Some of these kids have rap sheets back to age seven and eight, and they're a loss to us. The only thing we can do is protect ourselves from them. It's the younger ones, the ones still in elementary school, that we need to reach and help and change. But for some of the older ones, forget it. I mean, they'll kill you for a can of Coke, they'll kill you for your car, they'll kill you for nothing, for the pleasure of watching you die.

Suarez: Well, Bob Schwartz, we hear from Florida not the idea that prisons are about reforming, rehabbing, or anything. It's just a question of getting these people out of the general population for our own protection.

Schwartz notes that it's a bit "shortsighted" to think that we'll be safer, in light of the fact that people sent to prison some day get out of prison. Suarez returns to Buchanan and asks her if she "has any problem" with young offenders being given a second chance.

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