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From the Roundtable: Consider creative sentencing for youth causing crime increase

From the Roundtable: Consider creative sentencing for youth causing crime increase

Al Germond

What marvelous timing! After a few weeks of work came this bulletin: The Columbia-area crime task force, involving several police agencies, has been disbanded. This effort from the onset was only temporary—something some of us may have forgotten. But the news and the apparent abruptness of the group’s disbanding could have been handled better from a public-relations standpoint.
We’re told that a shade under 40 people had been arrested, and one particularly notorious character is once more locked up as a guest of the state. Meanwhile, the public continues to buzz about crime, personal safety and the Castle Doctrine, while fearful in some neighborhoods and wary overall. There may be a respite in the number of reported incidents for now, but it is certain that crime remains on the top of most people’s minds.
More and more, I hear people talking about the apparent desperateness of life among a small but very troubled segment of this country’s youth population. Illegal drugs are the focus of their daily existence, and the scope and nature of their delinquency has changed to revolve around the manufacture, sale and consumption of these evil substances. Some of us are ready to throw up our hands in frustration because it seems like we’ve run out of ways to deal with this troubled situation.
I remember when the occasional “bad seeds” of my youthful past were called “juvenile delinquents.” While murder would have been a rare and most extreme deed and drugs may have been involved in a few cases, one never heard about homes being invaded or to read about a “drive-by shooting” in press accounts at the time. 
Juvenile delinquency 50 years ago was typically was a matter of vandalism, car theft, underage drinking or an encounter where two or more guys got into a serious but non-lethal brawl. The Law took care of these miscreants through a network of youthful offender courts and state-run reformatories or homes for youth. Some parents, sensing the potential for delinquency among their children, would send them off to private school or maybe even military school.
Parenting was different and much less permissive then, so a different form of “law” was usually administered at home, often with the support of strong church-based groups. In addition, a more rigorous system of discipline was legally allowed to function in the schools—public, private and especially parochial.
Local police officials tell us that about 75 percent of crimes committed here are drug-related and that crack cocaine is the current substance of choice. The Law here is hardly naïve. They know who the dealers are and where they operate, and this was part of the recent crackdown that brought about the list of the arrested suspects. 
The continued demand for—as well as commerce in—these substances is frustrating because it signals the rising desperateness of life, especially among a generation of our young people craving for a “fix” when they should be in training to enter productive lives of working and raising families.
After many years and many dollars spent and programs created, nothing seems to have done much good. 
But maybe there’s a business solution to the idle furtiveness of many of our troubled youth. Consider constituting special training schools—perhaps modeled after the classic military school—going so far as to outfit their charges with uniforms, surfeited with unchallenged discipline while offering educational and vocational training. 
Military schools used to be a big deal in this country. Two continue to operate within 75 miles of Columbia, and, yes, they do operate along business lines. Many who survived the rigorous military school experience, as well as the parents who paid to send them there, still attest to the “rescue” these schools provided at a time when their “inmates” were classified as troubled teenagers, a bout with the law already behind them. 
Perhaps we could consider sentencing these youthful offenders to a training institution patterned along military lines instead of locking them up in jail. Prison sentences typically end up as a dead-end deal that leads to recidivism. Isn’t it time we consider a more enlightened program of “correction” to provide some hope and a productive career for those among our youth currently locked in this endless cycle of desperation and drug-dependency?

Al Germond is the host of the “Sunday Morning Roundtable” every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. on kfru. He can be reached at [email protected].

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