Scott Mire in the Department of Criminal Justices continues the discussion about law enforcement, and the importance of research into new approaches and responses to crime.

(This is Part II of this article.  To read Part I, go here.)

We hear that crime is going up in Lafayette.

It's very difficult to nail down what's happening.  Ultimately, the crime rate has been going down over the last several years, despite what we hear from the media.

But, in spite of the overall reduction in the crime rate, we have seen increases in violent crime.  That's the problem. 

What's the violence about?  Where is that coming from?  Is there some strain and pressure that we can address, before people turn to crime?  Is there something that is cheaper and safer than waiting for crime to appear, apprehending and  trying the accused, and then-- if we get the conviction-- incarcerating the perpetrators?  We can't afford the prisons we have, so it's worth doing some research to see if we can keep the public-- and our law enforcement officials, for that matter-- safer, while saving a lot of money.

Some crime may be a response. I think most people would agree that if we take a child and abuse him, deny him emotional and intellectual support, we would not be surprised if a few years later, he turns to crime. 

We all know that there are children out there who are in exactly that horrible situation.  And one of the best predictors of how many prison cells we will need in 15, 20 years, is how our children are doing on second-grade aptitude tests.  Clearly, we can hire as many policemen as we want, and it won't change those tests.

So external factors can play a role in crime.  We need to ask if there are cheaper and safer strategies that we can implement, before our neighborhoods become unsafe.

The abused child is a pretty simple example, but it makes sense that it is only the most obvious case in a spectrum of factors that lead to crime.  We all come under stress.  When we are not sufficiently dealing with our stress, it will boil over.  Under stress, some of us will become depressed, maybe have trouble making our bills, or even lose our jobs.  We all know people who have gone through this.  It would not be surprising to find out that a few people in that situation would keep sliding, become vagrants, perhaps turn to theft. Likewise, under certain kinds of stress we all become angry; a few people will go too far, and become violent.  Under stress, many of us will turn to drink, even if only for one night or a few days.  But some of us will not recover, and may end up using illegal drugs.

So for some crimes at least, the criminal behavior is part of a continuum that starts at one end with normal, completely acceptable responses to the stresses that everyone experiences, and descends step-wise to dysfunctional behavior, and even to dangerous crimes.

Now, I'm not arguing for leniency here, this isn't a bleeding-heart appeal.  I'm asking very practical, very economic questions. Understanding a behavior isn't the same thing as condoning it, it's just being smart.  You can't fix the problem if you don't understand it.

There are some very bad people out there, violent people, who need to be in jail.  Most everyone in law enforcement agrees with that.  But there are people in our jails, a lot of people, who have problems that may be addressed in safer, less expensive ways than long-term incarceration.  If we can accurately identify them in jail-- or even better, before they ever commit a crime-- then we may make the community safer for everyone, while freeing up a lot of tax dollars for more important things.

So, we're seeing an overall rise in violent crime in Lafayette.  It's worthwhile to look for any societal factors that are taking place right now that we may not be truly aware of, things that we may be able to address.

Many crime factors may ultimately be societal issues.  Some of our values, in my judgment, are skewed.  For instance, I came across some research on Mexican-American immigrants.  After living in the US for 13 years, their overall health-- mental, emotional, perhaps physical-- begins to decline.  Researchers don't know why.  But what they're thinking is, 13 years is about the time that immigrants have become acculturated.  And too often, America is about, "We never have enough."   Cars, clothes, a big house, if you don't have it, you're not successful.  Overall, Americans are more materialistic than a lot of cultures.

So we're thinking that perhaps for the first 12 years, Mexicans are not so material. Then they begin to realize that the game is almost impossible to win.  They may start thinking, "I'm not sure that I'll ever be what I'm supposed to be."  That's a stress in their lives. Most of them will cope with the stress in various acceptable ways, but some of them will begin responding in harmful ways, harmful to themselves, and occasionally, harmful to others.

So that's an example.

Now, I am not diminishing the importance of traditional law enforcement.  I believe that human beings are well-served by having some entity to look to for major problems-- crime, safety, whatever. Then when there is a problem that is beyond their control, people can say "We don't have to deal with that, we already have an institution.  We have law enforcement."

But to be fair to our officers, it may not all be the problem of the police.  I had a professor who said that crime is not necessarily the responsibility of the police.  Did he mean we need to do away with police?  Absolutely not.

The job of our police is to detect and respond to crime.  But that's not always the same thing as limiting, or even eliminating crime. Police are the mechanism society has created to detect crime and apprehend criminals.  They are not charged with dealing with the underlying problems.

Police are charged with enforcing the law.  But the police don't write the laws, Congress and the Legislatures do.   Police don't produce law-abiding citizens, families, schools and churches do.  Police don't provide people with the means to provide for themselves and their families, education does, business does, and the market does. So in my mind, there's a gap between enforcing the law, and resolving the fundamental causes of crime.

People in law enforcement are committed to what they do, which is appropriate.  So when we start these conversations, we can lose a lot of that audience if we're not careful.  That's something we don't want.

And you will find people, brilliant people, who will counter everything I am saying.  That's great, that's research.  There are some who believe that the only response to crime is locking people up.  If the situation gets worse, if crime is increasing, then we need to lock them up longer, we need to penalize them more.

But if you look at the very high recidivism rates, it's clear that the people who are released are more likely to come back.  When you lock them up longer, it may convince some of them that crime doesn't pay. But from the numbers we're seeing, it appears that for too many of them, longer time in jail is actually giving us back worse criminals. At some point, we want to look at what we are charging law enforcement to do, and asking if that is always the most reasonable way to go.

We need to look at the risk to society.  We say a person needs to be locked up until they're no longer a risk.  The problem is, how do you know who's a risk?  And what is the risk they pose?  And then, when will locking them up make the situation worse, and when will some other response make the situation better?  That's our problem.

If you go into the Lafayette Parish Jail, you will find it filled with criminals who are largely non-violent.  When you start looking at them, many of them are mentally ill.  Many of them are illiterate.  Far too many of them have never held down a job, and have no concept of what it means to get up in the morning, get to work on time, and put in a solid 8 hours.  So for some of them, medical treatment, education, and job training may prove a lot cheaper, and a lot safer for our community, than jail time alone can do.

So we need to expand the picture.  What can we do to ensure that someone never commits a crime, or that someone who has committed a crime doesn't do it again?  Law enforcement is only one part of the picture.  We need to look carefully at the societal factors that are related to criminal activity.  Crime is the back end, but what's at the front end?  Neglect, abuse, mental illness, lack of education, poverty-- often, that's the front end.  Those problems are not the responsibility of law enforcement.  But there isn't an officer out there who isn't aware that people with those problems, particularly children with those problems, are much more likely to turn to crime.

This discussion is critical.  We want to approach it slowly, respectfully.  We don't want to lose any part of the audience, because our law enforcement officials are essential, absolutely fundamental to our response to crime.

But law enforcement is only one part, and it's unfair to expect the police to do it all.