Law Enforcement and the Social Safety Net

Unofficial intervention works better than the official kind.

We recently explained how our laws and our criminal "justice" system work together to create criminals.  People who're arrested even for minor infractions lose their jobs and, having been in jail, have real trouble finding honest work.

Too many people committing crimes in the same place runs down the neighborhood.   A Harvard study in Science News pointed out that a disproportionate amount of crime and imprisonment comes from relatively few neighborhoods which become "incarceration hot spots."

Chicago crime data for 1990 to 1995 show that a large majority of prison and jail populations came from two poor, black sections of the city.

Science News also gave cause for optimism:

Not all poor neighborhoods become incarceration hot spots, Sampson emphasized. In earlier research, he and his colleagues found a link between reduced violence in some poor Chicago areas and a willingness among neighbors to act as mentors to local children and otherwise intervene on behalf of the common good.  [emphasis added]

Consider Harvard's grounds for optimism:

  1. Not all poor neighborhoods become incarceration hot spots.  The liberal claim that poverty inherently causes crime is provably untrue.
  2. Having adults mentor children and "intervene on behalf of the common good" reduces violence in neighborhoods.  An atmosphere of what used to be called "neighborliness" can overcome poverty, keep crime down, and help welfare children grow up to be productive adults.  In other words, neighborhood mentoring can "break the cycle" of poverty, welfare, and criminality, but requires a low-enough crime rate for adults to be able to form long-term relationships with children.

Neighborhoods become incarceration hot spots when adults either can't or won't intervene to promote the public good.  This used to be called "neighborliness."

Your Friendly Neighborhood Cop

Whether formally or informally, some communities are experimenting with new styles of law enforcement to try to mentor young people instead of sending them to jail.  USA Today reports on the controversial "hug a thug" strategy which emphasizes deterrence over punishment:

The deterrence model begins with the traditional police work of surveillance and undercover drug buys to identify the players in a drug market.  Top-level and violent dealers are arrested and prosecuted, but lesser criminals are handled differently:

Non-violent, low-level dealers are called in to meet with police, prosecutors, community members and social service agencies. They're shown video and other evidence of their dealing. The dealers are told that if they're caught selling drugs again, they'll be prosecuted based on the case police have built against them. "Banking" that case allows police to make a credible prosecution threat...

Once these criminals have been shown the evidence against them, they realize that they're certain to go to jail if they offend again.  In communities where this approach has been successful, ordinary citizens say it's like night and day.

"On a scale of zero to 10, it used to be a zero, and now it's a 10. That's how good it is," said Rolando Matos, who has lived in Chad Brown for seven years. "It's peaceful. You can be outside and not worry about people shooting."

The police are using a credible threat of jail to force nonviolent offenders to accept mentoring.  The threat of jail makes them more willing to listen to social workers, volunteers, and other adults who're trying to steer them away from crime.  Such mentoring efforts reduce crime as predicted by the Harvard study.

Back before our explosion in concern for everyone's rights, police used to make informal mentoring arrangements to deter misbehavior - it was not uncommon for a cop to beat up a miscreant instead of invoking jail to try to persuade him or her to behave better.  Such mentoring has gone out of style, but we're learning that police need to be able to use tools that are less damaging and less expensive than jail to try to reduce crime.

A Different Social Safety Net

When Americans speak of the "social safety net," they're usually talking about giving poor people money, food, apartments, or health care.  The Harvard study and the results of crime deterrence programs show that we need a different sort of social safety net to stop kids from sliding into criminality.

Our society doesn't do very well at addressing problems early.  Kids are sent to juvenile courts where nothing much happens.  They keep offending until they turn adult, then the next crime brings jail and a greatly-reduced chance of ever finding a job.  Instead of correcting them gently when they're young, we wait until they get big enough to do something really bad, then drop the hammer on them.

Asian societies are better at weaving graduated social safety nets than Americans are.  The Japanese, who learned a great deal about governance from the nearby Chinese, had a notion of “tonari.”

Your tonari was the houses on either side of you and the three houses across the street.  If anyone in your family committed a crime, your entire family was punished.  The occupants of the two adjoining houses and the house directly across the street were punished with a bit less severity than you.  The two houses diagonally across the street received a lighter punishment yet.

The theory was that these people all had a responsibility to society to help you to encourage your family members to behave virtuously.  There were no individual crimes; although the perpetrators received the heaviest punishment, all crimes were the responsibility of some group or other. Crime was not the responsibility of society at large as Western liberals claim, however.  Responsibility and punishment were focused on the individual people nearest the perpetrator, who could practically and reasonably be expected to exert influence on the miscreant.

Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was never a question in Japan.  You’d better be your brother’s keeper, and your neighbor’s keeper as well.  If any of them messed up, you’d be in trouble along with them.

The Softer Approach to Family Matters

One day while I was growing up in Japan, my mother received a visit from a very dignified gentleman who presented a calling card which she couldn't read but later figured out meant he was the “head of the block.”  Her later research indicated that our town had a “head of the block” for every so many families.  This was a wise, tactful, experienced volunteer, male or female, who had a track record of being able to achieve consensus on knotty problems.

After the obligatory cups of tea and talk about the weather, he explained his mission.  My two younger brothers were attending the local public school.  Despite the teacher's best efforts to persuade my brothers to walk the path of virtue, neither of them had a toothbrush, so they couldn't brush their teeth after lunch as required by the rules of hygiene.

This lack of virtue had to be relieved somehow.  Had they in fact brought home the teacher's notes about tooth brushes?

My mother was extremely apologetic.  Yes, the notes had come home, but she didn't read Japanese particularly well yet; she thought it meant she was to ensure that my brothers brushed their teeth before going to school.

The head of the block lit up with a huge smile.  We had a meeting, he told her.  We thought it must be something like that.  A few more cups of tea and he bowed himself out, problem solved!  From then on, my brothers carefully brought toothbrushes to school each day just like every Japanese boy.

Think about the social safety net this implies.  The teacher had an issue and sent a note home.  Nothing happened.  She convened a meeting which involved the head of the PTA who bucked the matter to the head of the block, who picked up the torch and solved the problem.

No shame anywhere: harmony, peace, and consensus all 'round.   But now that she understood, woe to my mother if she violated consensus by letting my siblings get to school without toothbrushes!

Whether they know it or not, the inventors of the deterrence approach are following ancient paths of mentoring blazed over millenia in Asian societies.  As Harvard has recently rediscovered, societies work better when adults mentor children; for half a century, we in America haven't much bothered.

The mentoring mechanisms of Japanese society sprang into action when my brothers didn't brush their teeth!  Is there any question why crime is generally lower in Asia than in America?

It's too bad we have to re-learn all these lessons about social cohesion and neighborliness for ourselves, but that seems to be the way it goes.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
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