Suppose your doctor found an effective treatment for something that ailed you, then said he wouldn't prescribe it because it wasn't cost-effective? Chances are you'd want the remedy no matter the cost, and you would be outraged that he was thinking of abandoning the treatment.
Yet that is exactly what Salt Lake City's crime doctor, Police Chief Ruben Ortega, seems to be saying. He wants the City Council to repeal an ordinance that holds parents responsible for reigning in their delinquent children, despite evidence that it works. Or, rather, it would work if the city would get serious about prosecuting it.Two years ago, the city became one of the first in the nation to adopt such a law. In the meantime, several other cities and states have done so in various forms. But few of them come as close to providing what delinquent juveniles really need, which is a supportive and loving environment at home.
Salt Lake City's ordinance doesn't throw the book at parents. It lets them stand on it to reach a little higher. After a juvenile's first conviction, parents are sent a letter informing them about the ordinance and urging them to control their offspring. After the third conviction, the parents are given a choice - enroll themselves and their problem child in counseling, either private or publicly funded, or face a possible $1,000 fine or six months in jail. Of course, no one would choose jail. The ordinance forces families into counseling.
At least, that's the way it works on paper. In reality, most of the parents have simply ignored the letters, and the justice system hasn't followed up. Only 211 families have participated so far despite the fact police sent more than 4,500 letters. Added to this is the frustration of fighting the battle alone. No other city along the Wasatch Front has passed a similar ordinance. Suburban kids who come downtown to commit crimes don't have to worry about it, nor do their parents.
Ortega's staff spends $85,000 each year tracking down the repeat offenders and $40,000 providing counseling, and the chief feels the city isn't getting its money's worth.
He's right, but the problem isn't in the concept. Counseling works. Studies have shown that the earlier it starts, the better chance a juvenile has of straightening out. In the two years since the ordinance took effect, 60 percent of the youths who completed counseling have stayed clean for at least a year. That 60 percent is a group you no longer have to worry will steal your car, burglarize your house or mug you while you're walking down the street.
No, the problem lies in a general lack of respect for the law. Too many people don't believe the city will enforce it, and the city has given them little reason to believe otherwise. Of the thousands of parents who ignored the letters, city prosecutors went after only seven families. Four of them never showed up for their court date, and they faced no consequences.
Respect for the ordinance will come only when prosecutors and judges decide to make examples of a few parents. The carrot-and-stick approach works only if one is willing to actually use the stick.
As I've noted before, crime fighting is, in its simplest form, a game of numbers. Studies have shown consistently that about 7 percent of the total population will become chronic criminals. The trick is to identify these people, intervene in their lives or remove them from the streets.
Studies also show that, by the second or third time a child ends up in court, he or she has set a destructive pattern for a life of crime. Juvenile crime isn't as enormous a problem as many people think. The FBI reports that more than 2 million juveniles are arrested each year, but only about 6 percent of them have committed violent crimes. Rape and murder account for only one-half of 1 percent.
Last year, I predicted Salt Lake City's ordinance would prove to be effective medicine over time. If the city cancels the prescription now, we'll never know.
- Last week, I wrote about the horrors that can come if Utah's school districts raise money through exclusive contracts with soft drink companies. This week, the state of Georgia offered exhibit A of where such a road leads.
A high school in Evans, Ga., suspended senior student Mike Cameron for wearing a Pepsi shirt on a day when school officials were trying to impress a visiting delegation from the Coca-Cola Co. The school was trying to win a national contest worth $10,000. Incredible as it may sound, school officials lectured Cameron about how much money he could have cost them, then kicked him out of school for a day.
Sort of puts a new twist on the school uniform issue, doesn't it? Make no mistake, once schools agree to sell themselves for corporate money, these are the types of pleasures that await.