Really Want to Fight Crime? Let’s Shift from Gulags to Green Economy

Go to any neighborhood meeting, mayoral forum or happy hour in Atlanta and ask folks to rank the issues that worry them most. I’d bet dollars to donuts that “crime” and “the economy” will top their lists.

I’ve been wondering a lot about how these issues are related and concluded that instead of putting more people in prison-issue, orange jumpsuits we’d be better off preparing them to become part of the coming “green collar” economy.

I realize that talking about job training for criminals seems untimely when we’re so busy being scared witless about becoming their next victims. But I’m convinced my proposition would ultimately be much cheaper, and saner.

It’s easy to see why our community is obsessed with crime. Our fight-or-flight response has been raised to fever pitch by a series of high-profile crimes in Atlanta – including the tragic murders of an elderly laundry worker, an outstanding young boxer and a popular bartender.

As a result of our anxieties, gun sales are up and more people are getting home security systems (assuming they can still afford to actually live in their homes).

Our local news outlets are also feeding the frenzy; most TV stations have adopted the “if it bleeds it leads” approach to journalism and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched a new online service that will enable its readers to track neighborhood crime stats as easily as Braves box scores.

From reality shows like “Cops” to popular procedural dramas such as “(fill in the blank) CSI” and “(pick a city) SVU,” it’s easy to get the impression that America is in the grip of a massive crime wave.

But the perception of rampant crime simply doesn’t match the reality.

According to the latest FBI statistics released Monday, crime – including rape, armed robbery and murder – are on the decline here in Atlanta and around the country. That’s not a new trend; the rates of violent and property crime have been decreasing steadily nationwide over the last several years

That’s also generally the case here at home, and Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington had the temerity to say as much in a newspaper Op-Ed last month.

Although the recently released FBI stats support Pennington’s claim, the chief had already become a whipping boy for pandering politicians and community groups who feel violated by criminals who they’re sure are lurking just beyond their doorsteps.

What Pennington, his law enforcement peers and our elected officials rarely discuss, however, is that much of the crime we’re experiencing is committed by violent drug gangs whose very existence is fueled by our nation’s hopelessly misguided, and obscenely expensive “War on Drugs.”

America locks up more people for longer periods than any other industrialized nation. There are roughly 2.3 million people in jails or prison and another 5 million either on probation or parole.

At a recent forum hosted by the Regional Atlanta Civic League, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said metro Atlanta incarcerates more people than the city of New York which has twice our population. If so, that’s unsustainable and downright crazy.

According to The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy and research organization, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charges comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980.

Jails and prisons do a good job of isolating truly dangerous people from hurting the rest of us, and I’m in all in favor of that.

But a large percentage of the offenders in our jails and prisoners are there for non-violent crimes. Putting more cops on the street and locking up more low-level drug dealers won’t make our neighborhoods safer in the long run.

Some might argue that rising incarceration and falling crime statistics are proof positive that our current approach to criminal justice is working – except that it isn’t.

The cost of building and operating jails and prisons – which are far more expensive than running schools or job training programs – is bankrupting us.

While we can debate whether fears about crime are exaggerated, there’s no doubt that our national and local economies are still in deep trouble. Georgia’s unemployment rate has shot past the national average while other indicators of our economic health have continued their downward trend.

Former mainstays of our economy such as manufacturing that once provided good jobs for millions of Americans with limited education, are gone overseas or gone extinct. And they’re not coming back.

The erosion of the country’s economic base has resulted in a generation of young men and women who are unequipped to become law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. That’s not going to change unless they can find jobs that pay a sustainable, living wage.

That’s why we must look forward to an economic green revolution. The Obama administration’s stimulus bill has included more than $60 billion for clean energy, including $11 billion to modernize the power grid to move energy from renewable energy projects to the cities and $2 billion in grants to develop better batteries for cars. About $97 million of those funds have been earmarked for Georgia.

A report issued in June by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that states that were early adopters of energy efficiency standards for power companies had been successful in developing new jobs for their residents.

Between 1998 and 2007, California had created about 125,000 green jobs, Texas had nearly 56,000 and Pennsylvania had about 39,000.

It may come as a surprise that Georgia ranks 9th among states with green technology patents and has created a total of 16,222 jobs in the field, beating the national average.

The Pew study reported that jobs in the clean energy economy grew at a national rate of 9.1 percent, while traditional jobs grew by only 3.7 percent during that same period.

According to the report, those green jobs were “as diverse as engineers, plumbers, administrative assistants, construction workers, machine setters, marketing consultants, teachers and many others, with annual incomes ranging from $21,000 to $111,000.”

Of course, many of the jobs in the emerging green economy will rightfully go to displaced workers with no criminal records.

But at the same time, there’s great potential to create gainful employment for those who would otherwise be selling drugs, terrifying our communities and clogging our jails and prisons.

The choice is clear. We can spend our time being paralyzed by our fears about crime or we can get serious about giving people jobs rather than jail cells.

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5 comments
s franklin
s franklin

Creating and maintaining a safe and economically healthy city require investment in public safety but not that alone as you point out. Georgia, Atlanta and local governments must invest (and compte succesfully for federal funding) in job training, first class and accessible education at all levels including technical training, affordable and accessible transit, prison reentry strategies, drug and alcohol addiction and mental health treatment.. to name a few. The men and women of the Atlanta Police Department no matter how committment, how well led and how well equiped or trained cannot create a safe city without these investments. Thanks for the focus of your column.

Montana
Montana

Back to prison farms! I am serious! Not that we control the Atlanta pen, but, uh, they got a couple acres right in town. The Atlanta Community Food Bank needs food and people need fresh veg. The more local the greener.

Farming/gardening is a therapy too. Maybe we make some truck farmers out of ex-cons.

Cabral
Cabral

Good piece, Lyle.

mariasaporta
mariasaporta

Lauren,
Thanks for your comment. Actually, you're responding to Lyle Harris' column. I do agree with Lyle that we need a more constructive approach to how we deal with those who commit crimes.
Thanks again.
Maria

Lauren
Lauren

Maria, while I think your idea is interesting and am also incredibly frustrated by our incarceration of nonviolent offenders, I do find myself once again discouraged by anyone implying that the "perception" of a rise in crime is a false one. The same FBI report indicates a rise of more than 2700 property crimes over last year in the city of Atlanta.