Late yesterday afternoon, I finally spoke with Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins about his comments in Thursday's New York Times concerning Los Angeles' -- and, by extension, Dallas' -- failure to reduce gang-related crimes. Seems L.A.'s attempts at busting heads is only making things worse, according to some law-enforcement types. The hard-line laws -- sweeping neighborhoods for suspected gang-bangers, hassling kids with tenuous gang ties -- are only creating a new generation of criminals, according to The Times's story:
...Such aggressive suppression tactics may worsen some gang problems by alienating whole groups of people from the police and stocking prisons with thousands of young people, many of whom are transformed into hardened gang members while incarcerated.
To which Watkins responded by saying, more or less, Amen. "In Texas, we tried to lock gang members up and not worry about them anymore,” Watkins told the paper. “Now we want to lock them up, but we want to fix them.”
But how? The answers, or at least the suggestions and the philosophy behind them, are after the jump.
So, Unfair Park asked Watkins, how do we "fix" gang members rather than merely imprison them? He did not offer specifics -- they don't allow for wiggle room, after all. Instead, he speaks in the broad, optimistic aphorisms of a man who believes you can intervene before you arrest. He doesn't want to convict; he wants to educate. He doesn't want to condemn; he wants to empower.
"The whole philosophy we’re trying to bring to Dallas County, not just with gang intervention but everything, is that for the longest time our success has been based on a conviction rate, but it's short-sighed," he says. "It’s easy to convict, and most of them will be released in two to five years and return to live in our community, and when they come back they’ll have the same problem -- but it’ll be worse.
"Just look at the criminal justice system," he continues, on a roll now. "The main reason people commit crimes is that 75 percent of those in prison have some kind of drug addiction, 80 percent didn’t graduate high school. They don't have any marketable skills. It’s about economics, so when you send a person to prison with drug problem and no eduction, when they get out they’re worse off. And they’re an ex-con on top of it, so their choices are limited. What am I gonna do when I go back to my neighborhood? I want to work, but no one will hire me, so my only alternative is to go back to crime.
"We have to influence the state Legislature. We need to have some rehabilitation standards, so when we do convict you and send you to prison, when you come back to our community you’re equipped to live as a better person. That makes all the sense in the world, and we need to have an element of re-entry back into society. But right now, you get $100 and a bus pass and have to go back to the county in which you were arrested, and in Dallas we'll get 8,000 inmates a year for the foreseeable future -- 8,000 who haven’t been rehabilitated. So to curb it, we need a re-entry program that basically puts programs and procedures in place to help them come back to the real world.
"And some people will say, 'That's too liberal, that's too soft.' But I don’t look at it that way. It’s smart. It makes sense not to want them to re-offend. If they do, that just means there’s another victim out there. We want to protect and prevent crimes. I don’t want to send anyone to jail. I want my success to be determined not on conviction rates but prevention rates. We need to make this an enjoyable place to live in. And a 93 percent conviction rate does us no good. And this is a long-term goal."
I try to steer the conversation back to gangs, specifically to how Dallas will intercede without alienating. Watkins -- who, it turns out, is sitting in his office with Heath Harris, the gang unit intervention prosecutor -- begins again.
"You create a whole new culture – the Pookie Culture, I call it," he says. "This kid Pookie grows up wanting to be like a gang banger on the corner. Just enforcing the law and arresting them and not being concerned with the big picture just creates a whole bunch of Pookies trying to make names for themselves and winding up in prison. We want them to aspire to be better than that. There's just a short-sightedness to being tough on crime."
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I ask him, How so? He talks about "interceding" before crime takes root -- and he's actually very specific in this instance, talking about yesterday's news conference in Jubilee Park near Fair Park, where Mayor Tom Leppert, police Chief David Kunkle and Watkins showed up to announce the installation of seven cameras meant to keep an eye on the impoverished neighborhood Walt Humann has been trying to rescue for years using private money. Seven cameras were switched on yesterday, as part of the $250,000 crime-watch initiative that's partially funded with South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund money; seven more are due later.
"We're using the holistic approach in Jubilee Park," Watkins says. "We put cameras there to prevent crimes, but it’s more than cameras. It’s about improving the educational system in the neighborhood and bringing economic development there. So when you have that, and the prevention piece with the cameras, then it’s more likely you will be successful in curbing that neighborhood from the criminal element.
"If 80 percent of the folks in prison aren’t educated, that tells us educated people don’t go to prison. And if they don’t have marketable skills or a way to make a living, if we bring economic development, it’s less likely they will commit crimes. And for those who do commit crimes, the camera makes it easier to convict, and it’s an element of deterrence, because I would think twice about breaking into this car. It’s a holistic approach. We’ve had one approach for a long time, which is being tough on crime, and we haven’t benefited from it.
"Of course we'll continue to crack down on gang members, but there also has to be an element of prevention where we can provide mentorships in high gang areas and show these young men and women a way of living. We will prosecute those who get involved with gangs, but we’ll also be active in the community to make sure they don’t get involved in the first place." --Robert Wilonsky