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Changing America’s violent nature

Updated: 
October 1, 2017 - 12:05am

Editor’s note: This is part two in a two-part column on American violence. This first part ran Sept. 16 http://westhawaiitoday.com/opinion/columns/stop-rhetoric-world-s-always-...

Violence has always been with us. Remember Cain killed Abel and America is a country populated with the world’s malcontents. Many immigrants were assertive, fed up with life in the old country and took action. The passive ones stayed behind. We need to pay attention to the facts, not campaign rhetoric. Most violent crime is at a much lower level now than much of the past and has been steadily declining since about 1990.

What else can we do?

Education: Young minds are malleable, as the twig is bent. There is pretty strong evidence that pre-kindergarten has lifetime benefits to the pupil, and to society. I believe Bill Gates estimated a dollar spent on pre-K education returns $44. This is the opportunity to instill commonly held values and social skills that the child’s guardians or peers may not know how to teach. A time to identify emotional problems and provide counselling, not punishment.

Find alternatives to incarceration: The urge to solve problems by incarceration has gotten out of control. In Biblical times there were few alternatives, death, torture, disfigurement or exile. Incarceration and exile have the sole advantage of being reversible. Exile unfortunately just passes the problem to a neighbor, and is hard to enforce. There are some criminals who cannot be allowed to mingle with free society but we need to learn how to identify and isolate them.

Incarceration creates an underclass of frustrated desensitized individuals who may never make the readjustment to normal social living. Incarceration seldom rehabilitates. The recidivism is around 80 percent. Prison has become a criminal academy. The skill set to survive in jail is inverted compared to the skills used in free society. Short-term highly disciplined boot-camp seems productive for first offenders provided there is counseling and normalizing education, too. Lock ‘em up, forget about ‘em and then drop them back in society with no useful skills, a bad attitude and a stigma is not working. And it is expensive. It costs more to imprison an adult for one year than to provide someone a K-12, perhaps even a college education. The heartbreaking problem is that every prisoner represents a broken family: wives without husbands, children without fathers, siblings stigmatized. When the accused go to prison, their families may lose jobs, education, housing, benefits or status in the community through no fault of their own.

Destygmatize emotional history: Obviously we do not want the deranged running about with deadly weapons. Unfortunately, we still have a lot to learn about who is dangerous and who is merely distraught. Better access to discrete mental health counselling would help. The Catholic Confessional and the neighborhood bartender come to mind. Could we have a public confessional, anonymous advice line? Some people can de-stress talking to their dog or goldfish. We need to separate that from the chronic or intense emotional dysfunction that leads to atrocities. That is going to be hard to learn if we keep shredding the perpetrators instead of analyzing them.

Don’t tax-farm: Many law enforcement agencies get pressured to bring in more infraction or traffic fine money. This can lead to abusive enforcement, resentment and disrespect for the whole system of laws.

End the war on drugs: It is an abysmal failure and the source of probably half our crime. That’s a whole other column, or dissertation. Drug abuse needs to be considered a medical not an enforcement issue. The war on drugs created a criminal class outside the legal system where the only way to settle grudges is through raw power and violence. When legal businesses have a price-war, the only casualty is short-term cash flow.

Don’t get me wrong. We have to fight crime and terrorists, but not at the expense of terrorizing ourselves and our neighbors.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a semi monthly column for West Hawaii Today. E-mail obenskik@gmail.com

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