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Community Essay : 'This Isn't a Game' : 'If we allow dangerous people back on the street too soon someone will die and it might be your child or mine.'

March 21, 1994|LEO GREENE | Leo Greene is a broadcast journalist in Los Angeles. and

I was waiting for my two young sons to finish their ice creams when I saw the gun.

We had been making a Saturday afternoon of it at a middle-class park in San Dimas. The park was crowded with children in play areas, picnickers and basketball players bumping and panting back and forth across a concrete court.

I had been watching the young man for some time. His gang attire, including the neatly pressed super-baggy trousers, seemed out of place. So did his cold demeanor. For a good while he had been sitting at a park bench staring at another young man, a clean-cut guy of about the same age shooting baskets by himself.

Shortly afterward, a second young Latino in obvious gang attire joined the man at the bench and together they beckoned to the black man. Putting down his basketball the young guy on the basketball court walked over.

I couldn't hear their words, but the body language spoke hostility. Suddenly the young basketball player turned and ran. One of the two men pulled out a small, chrome gun. They ran after the young black man. I saw the weapon being aimed and heard gunshots.

In the end, the young guy escaped injury, and sheriff's deputies arrived in time to make an arrest.

Several days later I was down at the sheriff's station going through pages of photographs. The investigators were pleased when I made correct identifications. They said I would be a key witness in the case. I was eager to help the authorities. What those two young men did enraged me. I felt as if these two gangsters with the cheap chrome handgun had threatened my own children's lives as well as the lives of all the people in the park and in that neighborhood. These two were waving a stick of death in the midst of dozens of innocent people and because of something broken or missing in their moral character they didn't care.

For me, this experience brings to bear several issues involving the criminal justice system, crime prevention and the utter failure of our political leaders to act in our best interest.

"Three strikes and you're out" is the latest addition to a patchwork sentencing system. It's one more unstudied knee-jerk fix that works well in a pre-election speech but will probably end up accomplishing little or causing more problems than it cures.

Don't get me wrong. We desperately need to get tough, especially on the incorrigibly violent.

But why fix a flat tire when the whole damn car is broken?

The young men with the gun in that San Dimas park will undoubtedly be unaffected by the three strikes law. Whether they're dealt with as juveniles or tried as adults, I'll wager the punishment won't fit their crime.

As for their crime, let me spell it out.

They carried a concealed weapon in a public park; they handled the gun near the vulnerable bodies of young children; they used a pistol so cheap and unreliable that it can only fire round bullets and might discharge if dropped; they fired a deadly weapon down a street where children, mothers and fathers live, and they tried to take the life of another human.

For such wildly criminal behavior these would-be assassins need to be put away for a long time. It's not a matter of strikes. This isn't a game. Experience tells us that if we allow these people back on the street too soon someone will die and it might be your child or mine. The point I'm getting to is that we need to comprehensively re-examine our entire sentencing system and intelligently establish new criteria and reorder the priorities.

First of all, dangerous people need to be taken off the street until they are no longer dangerous--if and when that time comes. Second, people who are not dangerous must be punished, but their prison terms should be shorter. That sounds stupidly simple, but our system isn't doing that. Third, when it comes to punishment we need to come up with cheaper but still-effective ways to deal with nonviolent criminals so that we can afford to keep the dangerous people behind bars.

The next order of business involves guns. That inexpensive "Saturday night special" used by those two almost-killers is the favorite weapon of young gangsters. The weapons are cheap, plentiful and hang inconspicuously in the deep pockets of baggy trousers.

How do kids get them? They steal them or buy them from licensed gun dealers.

The solutions are obvious: Ban the cheap little gangster guns that intelligent gun owners wouldn't buy anyway; next, make federal firearms licenses harder and more expensive to get; make sure new gun dealers are in conformance with local laws, and use the additional money to better monitor the dealers. Bills are pending. Get them passed. Finally there is the issue that involves our children and grandchildren.

Criminologists warn us that the threat of punishment is a weak deterrent. I've spent a good deal of time with gang members and I know it to be true.

As a society we can no longer afford to stand by wailing indignantly about unparented children and moral decay. Efforts in preventing crime intersect with our need to improve education. The answer lies in early intervention. If we can reach the lost children between the ages of 3 and 6 with educational and ethical indoctrination--including activities, creative play, reading to children and exposure to positive role models--I am convinced we can change things for the better in every way. We would reduce crime. Our children would be better prepared to enter school. We would ultimately save billions of dollars.

On the other hand, if we choose not to act, we will continue to pay the high price of wasted and dependent lives, violent crime and expensive and crowded prisons.

We can't turn back the clock for the two young gang members with the cheap gun in that San Dimas park.

But we can change the future.

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