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John Petro

An Illegitimate Response to Youth Violence

The issue of youth violence in Chicago gained national attention last fall after 16 year old Derrion Albert was beaten to death in a brawl involving dozens of teenage boys while walking home from school. The horrible incident was caught on video and broadcast online.

Unfortunately, Albert's death was far from an isolated incident. During the 2008-2009 school year 36 Chicago public school students were killed, up from 31 during the 2007-2008 school year and 27 during the previous school year. These murders tend to happen on the way to or from school and are turf or gang related.

At the same time, Chicago's overall crime rate continues to decline--the Chicago police department reported a "historic" drop in violent crime over the decade and a ten percent drop in homicide in 2009 over 2008 levels. Statistics from the CPD about youth violence also seem to contradict those being reported in the press. The CPD reported that homicides in which the victim is 17 years of age or younger dropped by 24 percent in 2009 over 2008 levels, recording 17 fewer victims under 17 years of age (a request for clarification by the CPD on these contradicting statistics is currently being processed by CPD staff).

Regardless of whether youth violence is trending upward, downward, or holding steady, one child murdered at the hands of another is clearly one too many. A culture of violence in Chicago's schools completely undermines the ability of students to achieve at school, creating the conditions for future generations of individuals unprepared to participate in the workforce and as citizens. These murders not only end the future prospects of the victim, but also of the perpetrators.

What, then, is the appropriate response to Chicago's youth violence problem? For the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald, we as a society should not even attempt to muster a collective response to Chicago's woes. Mac Donald argues that any money spend on social service responses will be wasted until poor African American Chicagoans learn personal responsibility, and most importantly stop the prevalence of "unwed pregnancy" and the "culture of illegitimacy."

Using the rate of African American children born out of wedlock in Cook County--79 percent of all black children in 2003 compared with 15 percent of white children--Mac Donald concludes, "Until that gap closes, the crime gap won't close, either."

But Mac Donald's conclusion has a fatal flaw: there is no evidence that a being born in a single-parent home causes a child to become violent (there is evidence that the two are related, but this does not mean that the one causes the other). In addition, analysis by the New York Times found that young victims of violence are just as likely to come from an unstable home as those in the general school population.

Even if there was evidence of causation, Mac Donald offers no policy responses that anyone would consider appropriate. Mac Donald laments, "There have been few calls in Chicago for a more aggressive stop-and-frisk policy." Never mind that New York City's stop-and-frisk policy has been found to needlessly send children to jail for low-level offenses like carrying small amounts of marijuana. It's unclear how such a policy would do anything to improve the rate of births out of wedlock, which Mac Donald has claimed is the primary cause of youth violence.

Upon closer inspection, it seems that Mac Donald isn't really concerned with youth violence at all. Indeed, she seems all too happy to wash her hands of the problem. Looking at the children of high school mothers, Mac Donald is ready to pass her sentence: "It's not hard to predict where Chicago's future killers will come from," she writes.

The real target of her article appears to be government spending on social services in Chicago's inner-city neighborhoods. Mac Donald sees the "billions" of dollars that the federal government has spent on programs for child and youth development, violence prevention, and poverty reduction as wasted. Mac Donald mocks innovative efforts to identify youths that are likely to suffer violence and to respond with interventions such as (Gasp!) finding the youth a job.

Despite the emphasis conservatives have placed on the value of work, Mac Donald also seems to think any efforts of creating jobs through stimulus spending would be in vain. "Jobs, whether government-created or not, aren't likely to make much difference in the culture of illegitimacy." So much for welfare-to-work.

For those of us that are truly concerned with the issue of youth violence, what are the appropriate solutions? One way is to reduce the school-based factors that lead to higher levels of violence. In New York City, these factors were schools with more students over-age for their grade, a large student body, overcrowding, and less spending per capita on direct social services.

Another solution is to address our failing juvenile justice systems. Simply relying on juvenile detention and punishment does not modify behavior. Instead, it tends to reinforce violent behavior. By focusing on cognitive therapy that addresses behavioral problems, including violent tendencies, we can reduce youth recidivism rates and ensure that youth are positioned to participate positively in society.

Instead of increasing funding for programs that seek to reinforce positive behaviors, Mac Donald would rather have these programs eliminated. Unfortunately, her approach would do nothing to address the issue of youth violence or to improve the lives of the Chicago school children. In this case, it is not the children of unwed mothers that are illegitimate, but Mac Donald's approach to the problem.

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Posted at 2:32 PM, Jan 27, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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