"People who commit serious violent crimes ought to be held accountable, and we don't want those people running free to victimize more people," says David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC).
The latest rhetoric coming from City Hall, Hamilton County and the police is to crack down on crime, drug crime in particular. Coroner Dr. O'dell Owens says everywhere he goes that, if you're not involved with selling or buying drugs, you're not likely to be a victim of violent crime in Cincinnati. The obvious fix seems to be locking up everyone related to the illegal drug trade. But that's not going to cut it, according to Singleton.
"In my experience, bad things happen when we rush to come up with easy political fixes to serious issues," he says.
A proposed $225 million jail is an example, Singleton says. To date, OJPC (www.ohiojpc.org) seems to be the only organization opposing the proposal.
"It's the usual scare tactics around crime," Singleton says. "Folks are made to feel like this is the most dangerous city in America and, if we don't build this jail, it's going to get worse. I just don't think that's true.
"This is an easy political sell for the Hamilton County Commissioners because folks are afraid of crime. Anything that sounds like you're tough on crime is just gonna happen without any serious debate. It's another example of how we grasp for the easy 'solution' rather than trying to deal with problems that cause crime in the community."
Using the example of parents who fail to pay child support, affectionately referred to as "deadbeats," Singleton says locking them up in jail is a punitive response but isn't going to help anyone. The people attending OJPC's legal clinic want to pay child support but can't find jobs because they've been in the criminal justice system, he says.
"I'm not trying to suggest that the jail is full of people who are not paying their child support," Singleton says. "That's not true. But there are ways that we're too punitive.
"Some would say, 'Well, that's their fault. They chose to commit a crime.' But at a certain point we gotta say, 'How do we help people get on their feet so they can succeed?' "
Getting at the root causes of crime -- poverty, poor education, lack of affordable health care -- are things Mayor Mark Mallory regularly talks about. Singleton is proposing a problem-solving brainstorming before construction begins.
"Rather than spending $225 million to build a jail, which ultimately will not solve the crime problem in this community, we ought to take this opportunity to figure out what we need to do as a community to really give folks an opportunity to succeed rather than fail," he says. "We need to have a debate about this. There isn't any serious discussion about an alternative to building the jail. We need to have a discussion about what are the issues in the community that are contributing to crime, like the failure of our school system, and how do we come to grips with that issue? At the end of the day, if we need to build a new jail, then we need to build a new jail."
Characterizing public schools as "pipelines to prison" for African-American boys, Singleton says less than 20 percent of these students graduate.
"We need to be smart about these issues," he says. "Tough is not enough. Smart is hard. It's not easy to tackle the issues with the schools or how to figure out how to bring viable economic development to Over-the-Rhine without displacing the poor people. Those things are difficult, but we've gotta really wrestle with them."
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