Throughout President Donald Trump’s campaign and in his first weeks in office he made it clear that he was going to crack down on crime. After swearing in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump signed three executive orders that he said were “designed to restore safety in America.” One specifically directed Sessions to establish a new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.
Trump talked tough about putting more cops on the streets, equipping them with the tools and resources needed to keep neighborhoods safe. Even though FBI statistics have shown a sustained decline in violent crime and the overall crime rate remains at its lowest levels in decades, Trump has instead maintained that the crime rate is rising at record proportions while painting a dire picture of inner cities.
In his February press conference, he doubled down, saying, “You go to some of these inner city places and it’s so sad when you look at crime….they’re living in hell.”
Unfortunately, Trump is not only mistaken with his assessment but is going in the wrong direction. The problem is not crime. Crime stems from a lack of education and opportunities. If the Trump administration is truly concerned about finding solutions to crime, specifically in inner cities, the first step should be improving literacy rates.
The inability to read and write well may not be a direct cause of criminal behavior, but low literacy and crime are closely related. Literacy is learned. Illiteracy is passed along by parents who cannot read or write. 43% of adults with low literacy skills live in poverty. 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients perform at the lowest literacy levels. 90% of welfare recipients are dropouts. People with low literacy skills generally have inadequate problem-solving skills and tend to be less active within their own communities. Isolated and vulnerable, many can feel like outcasts. 16 to 19 year olds at the poverty level and below, with below average skills, are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their counterparts with better skills. Without reading and writing skills young men often grow up lacking in self-esteem, hiding behavioral problems and shortcomings behind macho posturing while bullying, committing petty crimes and joining gangs. They are generally unemployable, adrift in society before they can even vote - and their numbers are growing nationwide, not just in urban cities.
The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure." 85% of all juveniles who have passed through the juvenile court system in America are functionally illiterate. 70% of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of reading which means they are functionally illiterate. It’s not hard to connect the dots between illiteracy and crime.
When states like Arizona and California plan future prison growth and project the number of cells each will need, they use an algorithm factoring in the number of kids who do not read well in grade school. Evidence shows that children with poor reading skills often fail to catch up and are more likely to drop out of school, take drugs, fall into poverty, or go to prison. The reality is that, in some states at least, if you don’t know how to read by the end of fourth grade, the state is building you a prison cell.
Literacy training can provide a chance to build a better future, giving young people at risk of delinquency the skills needed to find and keep jobs and escape poverty. The ability to read and write well can help marginalized young people resist the temptations that might lead to a prison cell; not some imaginary score that can be earned on the streets. At least 75 of every 100 adults in prison were persistent youthful offenders - improving the literacy of young people could have a significant impact preventing and reducing adult crime.
This administration’s efforts at fighting crime do not end with locking up criminals either; they have a responsibility to reform criminals in ways that prevent them from committing crimes when released. A Canadian study showed that prison literacy programs can reduce recidivism by up to 30%, depending on the level of literacy the prisoner achieves. In a U.S. study, earning a college degree in prison reduced recidivism by 100%. These programs give inmates the skills they need to get steady jobs when they are released, reducing chances of re-offending and returning them to their communities with a more positive self-image. Achievement, acquired skills, and self-esteem help them avoid one of the main causes of criminal activity – unemployment.
The issue of crime – especially in urban areas and inner cities that President Trump is so worried about – cannot be solved by better policing alone. Reactionary policies, misleading statements, and misquoting crime statistics doesn’t disguise the fact that the real problem in inner cities is a crisis of education. The Cabinet member who should be leading this fight is not Sessions, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
More cops on the beat with bigger guns won’t solve the problem. Maybe the right tools and resources to keep neighborhoods safe starts with teaching the basics of reading and writing to our children.