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.

Buchanan: Well, you know, in a perfect world no child would be sent into the adult court system. They'd all remain in the juvenile justice system, if it worked, if it was totally revamped, if it really was adequate. But the juvenile justice system that we have today was designed in the 1950s for kids that were truant from school or stole hubcaps. It wasn't designed for murderers and rapists and highway robbers. And so it's, you know, it's laughable to them.... If this system was working so well in some of these other states, then why is it less and less safe on the street? Why is it not only the cities but even the rural areas A I'm sure James Jordan [father of basketball star Michael Jordan] thought it was safe to stop for a catnap by the side of a rural North Carolina road, but they found him. I mean, we're all going to meet them sooner or later, and they're out there and they're hunting. They can be behind you in traffic. No one is safe any more, even the reasonably prudent, law-abiding citizen. They can be waiting at the expressway exit, they can be in your driveway.

Schwartz: Well, you know, I don't --
Buchanan: If it works so well, then who are all these little predators out there who are killing innocent victims?

Schwartz begins to argue that the juvenile justice system is working better than the adult system. Buchanan cuts him off.

Buchanan: Most of our murders in Florida, virtually all of our tourists that were killed were killed by juveniles or people who had long juvenile records and have just become adults. These are people that are living out their violent MTV, rap music, violent-movie fantasies, and they're dangerous as hell.

Schwartz: I don't disagree with that. In Pennsylvania --
Buchanan: And none of them are newcomers to the system. They all have long records back in the system, victim after victim after victim. It's so unfair to the rest of the taxpaying population to be subjected to this.

The subject shifts to the question of incarceration versus rehabilitation. Buchanan strongly advocates the former.

Buchanan: It keeps people safe on the street because the people here in Miami, they stopped the tourist crime in its tracks by attaching these vast numbers of police officers to the job of keeping the tourists safe. They practically escort them from the airport to their hotels. So crime against tourists has dropped, but crimes against the rest of the population here, the taxpaying citizens who live here all year 'round, have gone way up. So all it is is displacing it, it's not solving the problem at all.

Suarez asks Schwartz for his thoughts about the widespread interest in juvenile "boot camps." Schwartz responds by saying that many of them are badly designed and lack treatment and after-care components. In addition, he says there is no evidence that boot camps are needed for first-time offenders. Buchanan cuts him off.

Buchanan: Those are the ones who need it the most!
Schwartz: Well, I was --
Buchanan: The repeat offenders --

Schwartz: Wait, wait, let me finish. Just one sec, just one sec. Fifty percent of the first offenders in any juvenile justice system will never come back after the first arrest if you do nothing else. So you're going to have an awful lot of false-positives, of sending about half the kids who are arrested to boot camps --

Buchanan: It can't hurt 'em.
Schwartz finishes his thought by asserting that for some kids, boot camp can be more harmful than helpful.

Suarez: You were going to say, Ms. Buchanan?
Buchanan: I think the only way is to really get tough. This coddling, you know, our crime rate in this country is so high because no country in the world coddles our criminals the way we do.

Suarez: How come we have the highest incarceration rates of any industrial nation on Earth? We hear so much about the business of coddling criminals.

Buchanan: But they're coddled! I mean, they call, they have Princess phones in their cell, they call right and left [Suarez breaks into laughter], they're sending out for food, they're doing credit-card scams, they're filing frivolous lawsuits from jail. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer that killed seven or eight young people...he sits in a separate suite in Attica so the other prisoners don't harm him. He has a pink shag rug. A pink padded toilet seat. His own little library, his own little typewriter where he can write letters to the editor and letters to the governor. When he wanted to go on a special diet, his lawyer forced the prison system to hire a special nutritionist to provide the kind of diet he wanted. Why should the taxpayers pay for that? That's outrageous!

Schwartz: Well, that may be outrageous but his situation is --
Buchanan: If our prisons were more like the ones in Turkey and Mexico, we'd have a lot less recidivism.

Schwartz: Well, I suppose we could execute everyone we arrest, too, but I think that David Berkowitz's situation is certainly atypical given if you take a look at prisons at any state in the country you're not going to find prisoners with Princess phones. I mean, the clients that I used to have still call me collect in the morning. In addition we do have --

Buchanan [sarcastically]: And I suppose you accept the charges.
Schwartz [wearily]: If I know them, I do and I pay for it. And I work to find places for those people to live and jobs....

Buchanan: And they're getting free dental, medical, psychiatric, legal care. They're given all these rights, they're getting married in prison. They're fathering children in prison. I mean, you call this punishment? Many of them are living better there than they did out on the street. There are people in Miami who worked all their lives and can't afford air-conditioning, but they got it in jail. They got color TV in the jail. I've eaten the food in jail and it's better than the food in the Miami Herald cafeteria. 'Cause they want to keep them happy, they don't want them to cause any trouble, so they give them the best. I've had people call me from jail to complain that the coffee was cold.... A cop killer used to call me from jail every time his coffee was cold to complain.

Schwartz acknowledges that no one supports "the idea of frivolity in prison," but then asserts, "The descriptions of this prison system that you've put out here are just wildly exaggerated." Later Suarez asks Buchanan about the value of judges having discretion in sentencing juveniles.

Buchanan: Well, I think creative sentencing is terrific, and I think that if they can't go into the military and serve their country there, they could paint public buildings, they could work on public projects, they could clean up litter -- it's most of their peers who throw it there anyway. There are a lot of things that they could do, a lot of ways judges could be creative. They could sentence them to work with retarded children, they could sentence them to work helping old ladies. Somebody caught mugging an old lady could be made to work in a nursing home, could be made to assist old ladies, take them shopping, you know, do things that help them to develop a sensitivity to other people, a sensitivity that they don't have. If you notice, the crime rate in this country among young people soared once we no longer had the draft. I mean it's a real tragedy --

Schwartz: The crime rate decreased actually --
Buchanan: -- and --
Schwartz: Violent crime increased a bit in the Eighties. But after the draft was eliminated, juvenile crime plummeted dramatically.

Buchanan: But in the Eighties, without a sense of discipline, I mean we've had the same trouble in our police departments, because they used to have this vast pool of retired military or people who'd served in the military to draw upon, and now they no longer have that. And they have to take these kids out of school who, instead of following orders the way someone who's been in the military will do, question it, give their sergeants an argument, didn't want to wear their hats, wanted to wear mustaches, want to wear earrings, want beards -- you know, have changed the whole idea of police work into something that now doesn't work as well as it used to.


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