When faced with the crisis of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt determined to try things. Experiment. Get some projects rolling and see what worked. Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez faces a crisis that demands a similar response.
Hartford is having one of its worst months in recent memory, with the near-fatal mugging of 71-year-old former Deputy Mayor Nick Carbone, the hit-and-run assault on 78-year-old Angel Arce Torres and other assorted mayhem.
Perez ought to stop trying to convince the citizenry that crime is a lessening concern and instead try things, a broad range of short-term and long-term initiatives to get a handle on the violence.
It has to start with a law enforcement response, which is under way. I might suggest that the HPD stop cars that are speeding. The car that hit Torres on Park Street was chasing another car and both were way over the speed limit. This happens because there isn't as much traffic enforcement in the city as there clearly should be.
There are way too many guns in the city. The legislature could help, if only the Wizard of Oz would give them some courage. I was talking with a friend who's a retired police officer, who suggested taxing guns and ammunition at a much higher rate than is presently done.
If we tax cigarettes to help pay for their public health costs and to create a disincentive for their use, doesn't the same argument apply to handguns?
But in addition to the police response, the mayor ought to be playing other cards.
Let's start with a long-term goal, teen pregnancy prevention. Most of the young men doing these crimes come from chaotic homes, raised more by themselves than their single teen moms or long-gone dads. Children of single, unemployed teenage mothers rarely get the emotional, intellectual and material support they need to succeed. They become the prison population.
Hartford has a teen pregnancy prevention program called Breaking the Cycle, run by the nonprofit Hartford Action Plan on Infant Health. The program was begun in the 1990s, when the number of live births to city teenagers was more than 700 a year. This program, and others such as the school-based clinics, got the number down to around 400 a year.
But there it stays, and Breaking The Cycle's funding was severely cut last year. "We're in a very difficult situation," said Jean King, executive director of the agency. If anything, this program ought to get more funding. If adolescent girls can be convinced to finish high school and marry before having a child ... maybe that's asking too much, but it would really turn the city around over time.
Let's move up the age ladder. Hartford school Superintendent Steven Adamowski said last year that the real graduation rate in the city was 29 percent. What about the other 71 percent?
I spoke with South End activist Hyacinth Yennie not long ago, and she said teenage boys of school age were wandering through that part of the city spraying graffiti on buildings and fences. Why aren't these kids in trade school? she asked.
Aha. She's quite right. Those kids ought to be in vocational education, jobs corps centers, the military or somewhere other than wandering through the city causing trouble.
Also, the city should crank up summer youth recreational programs. Hire teachers and college kids, run programs during the day and into the evenings. Keep the kids busy.
Finally, the state and companies the state subsidizes ought to create jobs in the city, either by moving them here or inventing them. One of Roosevelt's enduring good ideas was the Civilian Conservation Corps. There ought to be an urban version of the CCC. We have a lot of infrastructure in need of repair. Let's hire our own people for the work.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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