The press packet makes it sound exciting. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, it says. That's the name of the Washington, D.C.-based organization that's in Phoenix to discuss initiatives aimed at preventing kids from becoming criminals.
"Arizona could cut crime--perhaps by half or more--by cutting the enemy's most important supply line: its ability to turn kids into criminals," says the flier.
Today's conference is a gathering of Arizona's key law enforcers. They include Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt, his Tucson counterpart Douglas Smith, Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden and Glendale Police Chief David Dobrotka. Attorney General Grant Woods is also scheduled to be present, as is our local Genghis Khan, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Non-Arizonans might find it strange that anyone would be excited to hear it publicly acknowledged that conditions and treatment experienced during childhood are major factors in adult behavior. But, in Arizona, this represents a significant advance in the discourse of crime prevention. This is a state where, until recently, we had a popular governor who argued that crime was not caused by social deprivation or abuse, but by criminals. To that governor, criminals were a self-created phenomenon, and there was nothing that could be done to prevent crime--all we could do was punish the criminals after the fact. This man, of course, turned out to be a felon himself.
So now we have a meeting to discuss crime prevention rather than punishment. The meeting is held in the Phoenix Child and Family Learning Center in South Phoenix. I get there at noon, and the yard outside is packed with cops and other officials enjoying a major schmooze fest. Arpaio, as usual, is talking about himself.
"If the people don't want me, then I retire," he's telling someone. "They might do me a favor." If only, Joe.
Woods the lame duck is probably doing a lame radio show somewhere; he doesn't appear.
The event kicks off with some opening remarks by Amy Dawson, associate director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. A young woman with a beaming, fixed smile that never varies, she starts by making a revelation that makes me glad I work for a weekly paper--if I worked for a daily, I'd have to call and tell them to hold the front page.
"Abuse and neglect is a bad thing," she declares.
Actually, they are bad things. Dubious grammar notwithstanding, now it all makes sense. I'm going to have to seriously rethink my views on child-rearing.
Dawson recites statistics--92 percent of police chiefs nationwide agree that home visitation, child care and after-school programs are important in the prevention of delinquency; 17 percent of children denied such services become delinquent; of chronic adult offenders, 35 percent were denied any such services, while those who had these services and still offended amounted to only 7 percent.
"But," chirps Dawson, "the good news is that we know how to prevent abuse and neglect--and prevention is 80 percent effective."
Great. How do we do it?
Home visitation, child care and after-school programs.
But didn't we just hear about that a few minutes ago? And are there any plans for the implementation of such programs? Apparently not, because Dawson is now blithely introducing Sanford Newman (whom she calls Sandy), her organization's president who bears a disquieting resemblance to Alfred E. Newman, the guy on the cover of MAD Magazine. Like Dawson, he never stops grinning.
He begins his spiel with an attempt to placate law enforcement hardasses. "We know dangerous criminals need to be behind bars," he reassures them. "But we also know we have to prevent kids from becoming criminals . . ."
Yeah, we know. Dawson already told us. But how are we going to do that?
Same methods she listed.
Okay. But how are we going to implement them? Who's going to do it? Where's the money to come from?
Newman gives the floor to the next speaker.
I had wondered what Joe Arpaio was doing at such a forward-thinking event. Then I realized that as Arpaio finds it harder and harder to get publicity, he'd probably attend a drumming circle wearing a breechcloth if he thought it would get his name in the paper.
"It's interesting that the government can fund room and board for criminals--so they should fund our children," he says sagely. "Children are our future. We need to keep kids busy, keep them off the street."
Arpaio has given himself a promotion. He used to call himself "America's Toughest Sheriff," but now he declares, "They call me the toughest, meanest sheriff in the universe, but we have great programs in the jails--that I won't go into--that nobody will print."
This last remark undoubtedly is a little tantrum that's been brewing inside Arpaio since the last time the mainstream media snubbed one of his "Joe Shows." Which is happening with regularity these days.
Before long, Arpaio is singing his familiar song. Rather than discuss the issue in question, he talks about how much he needs a new jail. "It was a big fight to get the Legislature to let the people vote to build a new jail." Someone asks him what he thinks is more important, funding for child care or a new jail. "I'll take the new jail," he says. "We have to put bad guys in jail."
It doesn't seem to occur to him that money spent holding petty felons would be better spent on child care. Or what about all the thousands of dollars he spends to have his TV appearances recorded for posterity? Why not donate that to an after-school program?
Fortunately, the other cops present are real law enforcers. None of them speaks to Arpaio, and they all seem to stand as far away from him as possible.
Harold Hurtt is a middle-aged, serious-looking man who speaks quietly and thoughtfully. He says it's vital that all kids have supervision after school. Referring to the sheriff's recent lobbying of the Legislature to fund a new jail, he says it's necessary to deal with current criminals while preventing future ones. Showing his years in California, he calls for "a holistic approach" to crime prevention. Comical as it sounds when he puts it this way, it's still the most sensible thing anyone present has said.
Unlike most of the others present, Hurtt feels some urgency to initiate programs. "We're not waiting for federal funding. We don't have the luxury of waiting for the Legislature," he says. But he doesn't say how much money the Phoenix police will kick in for child-care centers and after-school programs. And he doesn't say what's to be done meantime.
Sheriff Ralph Ogden of Yuma County refers more scathingly to Arpaio's demands for a new jail.
"What makes us think we can build our way out of this problem?" he asks.
This is all that happens. Everyone gets together and agrees that kids have to be helped to grow up as law-abiding citizens. Everyone agrees on what is needed to provide that help. And no one has any idea about how it can be done.
Child care costs more than a university education. And, according to statistics released by Arizona Children's Defense Fund, it's completely unaffordable for many working families in this state. Families with both parents working full-time at the federal minimum wage earn only $21,400 per year. There are approximately 430,000 children younger than 13 who live in low-income families.
Most Arizona mothers work to help support their families. About 58 percent of mothers with children younger than 6, and 74 percent of mothers with children between 6 and 17, are in the work force.
It's not that these mothers are "career women" who choose to work rather than spend time with their kids. Nationally, 55 percent of working women provide half or more of their household income. About half of America's families with young children earn less than $35,000 per year. One out of three children of working mothers is poor even though their mothers work--or would be poor if their mothers didn't work.
In Arizona, a family with both parents working at minimum wage who bought child care for an infant and a 4-year-old at the average price would have to spend 41 percent of their income on child care.
Obviously, this is impossible. And it's a waste of time for police officials and anyone else to daydream about how great things would be if everyone was provided with adequate, affordable child care--when there's no sign of it happening.
Carol Kamin, executive director of Children's Action Alliance, also attends the conference. She doesn't look happy.
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"I'm delighted that the police chiefs are talking about these things--but a voice without action is meaningless," she says. "In 1994, the Legislature funded three programs--Health Start, a terrific program that provided prenatal outreach for poor mothers, giving them basic parenting education. It received $1.4 million in funding.
"The second was Healthy Families, which identified potential child abusers. It received--and still receives--$3 million.
"The third was Family Literacy, which receives $1 million.
"That kind of money is just a drop in the bucket. All three of these programs were very successful, and should have been expanded. But, at the last session of the Legislature, Healthy Families and Family Literacy received no increase in funding, and Health Start had its funding withdrawn. So it's phasing out support for 3,000 families.
"These are the kind of programs that the police chiefs were talking about."
So what can be done?
"They have to band together, go to the Legislature," Kamin says. "Otherwise, it's just talk."