Gov. Mike Parson called a special session of the Missouri General Assembly to deal with the high crime rate in our metropolitan areas. I’m delighted he is concerned about the problem, as we all should be.
However, like the president and so many others, our governor proposes to attack the problem by “getting tough on crime,” a solution that has proved to be largely ineffective both in Missouri and nationwide. He is proposing no positive incentives to encourage better behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, there are indeed evil people who deserve to be imprisoned, but the governor’s approach does nothing to address the causes of the overall crime problem rather than merely the results.
It primarily attempts to apprehend and incarcerate criminals, which in the end adds to the prison population with little or no reduction in crime.
It’s clear to me that the real cause of crime is lack of education and the poverty that results from too many Missourians being ill-prepared to hold a job. Or they are unwilling to hold a job because pay is far too low to support even a single person, much less a family.
Our approach to this problem must change, as the governor suggests, but adding more policemen and imposing longer prison sentences won’t do the job.
Instead, here’s what we need:
1. An immediate sharp increase in the minimum wage. We need to get to a $15-an-hour minimum as soon as possible, but a transition to $12-an-hour for one year would be an acceptable step in the right direction.
2. We need to target inner-city schools and provide them with more money to hire better teachers who can persuade students to stay in school by making curricula more interesting and compelling.
3. We need to provide more money to those schools to install science labs and other facilities that are now outdated or completely absent.
4. We need to provide incentives to lure students into attending classes. Reward them with a nice summer camp, college tuition discounts or something else that might be appealing.
5. We need to focus our police forces on apprehending those involved in drug trafficking and prostitution rather than harassing people who are simply driving while Black. When youngsters see drug dealers and pimps as the only ones in their housing areas with money, that’s what they aspire to be.
6. We need adult retraining centers outside the cities. Apprehended and convicted nonviolent criminals would have a choice: Go to prison or go to a remote location for a period of time where you can learn job skills.
7. We could fund all of this with a cigarette tax increase, which would deter more people from smoking, resulting in a healthier population. We also need a gasoline tax increase. Our fuel tax is currently among the lowest in the nation.
8. Finally, either the federal government or the state needs to create a jobs program to employ many of those who are now hopelessly adrift in our cities. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our water systems, roads, bridges and public buildings need attention, and this is a place we can find workers to address the problem. But that will work only if they are paid wages that will induce them to work.
I’m quite sure there are other steps we could take to address the causes of the problem rather than simply trying to deal with its results. Until we take a new approach to solving this problem, the getting-tough-on-crime effort will simply cost us more money with continued dismal results.
I am tired of watching Missouri spiral to the bottom tier of states in so many rankings, most notably education funding.
We need better schools to attract more high-tech industries to locate here. We have an ideal geographic location for business, and we need to step up our game to provide the workers they need.
The steps I suggest here would get us headed in the right direction.
Brian S. Brooks is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.