This is not another editorial about gun control. This is not another editorial about the Sandy Hook shooting. This is not another editorial examining the extremely rare tragedies that are mass shootings.
What is the editorial about? It's about the 12,000+ “normal” “mundane” murders that occur every year in the United States. The ones we “expect”.
This is also an editorial about Louisiana, how Louisiana leads the nation in its murder rate, with more than double the national average – and how Louisiana also leads the nation in incarceration.
Lastly, and most importantly, this is an editorial about how the current culture and politics of Louisiana represent everything wrong with the United States, and how we can learn an be better people, a better society, and how we can be better to one another.
This is a hard editorial to write because there are a lot of things that need to be touched on without digressing too much from the main issue. Please bear with me. Here we go.
Mass shootings are extremely rare tragedies that all seem to happen unexpectedly – about two a year on average – spaced out almost randomly across the United States. They don't give a good representation of everyday murders or crime. Where mass shooters may not know their victims, most murderers know their victims personally. According to an FBI crime report, investigations show that about 4 in 5 murder victims knew their killers prior to their deaths.
Similar trends occur in other forms of crime. According to the National Institute of Justice, between 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. According to a Department of Justice study of offenders serving time for sex offenses against children, nearly 90 percent knew their victims beforehand.
These killers and rapists, they're not the black shadowy silhouettes of evil strangers just waiting to harm you. They're people we know. They're our friends and acquaintances. Or, specifically, they're the friends and acquaintances of most people who are killed and/or raped. They're people, like us.
With this in mind, a question arises. If the situation were changed, couldn't we all be criminals? If our brain chemistry were different, unbalanced in one way or way? If our genes made us more easily prone to anger or addiction? If we were brought up in a society, or a family, that didn't teach us that things like murder and rape are bad? If we were so economically bad-off that we had to steal to survive without being homeless?
It's easy to write off all of these people as monsters, lock them away and forget about them. It's also easy to forget that these people, no matter how bad their deeds, are human.
What's hard is looking at ourselves in the mirror, as people in a society, and figuring out what systematic things could be leading people to criminal choices, including murder.
It's apparent this is something we have to do in Louisiana, especially as it's becoming more apparent that our “corrections” system doesn't seem to correct much about these people's behavior, as most criminals of our criminals are repeat offenders.
This makes sense to me. Even the prisoners who may want to better themselves once they re-enter society are given an extra burden of having potential employers not hire them because of their record. Realistically, employers may have hired these people prior to their criminal offense either because, statistically, this same demographic of people are usually less educated and economically worse off.
As far as statistics on crime and education are concerned, there are mountains of studies, such as this one from the University of Western Ontario, that show how, on large scales, there's a strong correlation between education and crime: that better educated populations have significantly less of all crimes. With this in mind, it makes sense that Louisiana has one of the highest crime rates – it also has one of the lowest ranked rates of education.
It's not so much that Louisiana spends less in total on education that makes this such a problem – it's more so that it doesn't spend nearly enough to students who need financial aid the most. Louisiana spends only 17 percent of state-provided financial aid on need-based grants, less than one third of the national average, and less than one-half of southern states that are fairing better than Louisiana is – both in education and murder rates.
Another strong variable, like education, that seems to lead others to crime is a difficulty to access mental health services. According to a report a few years ago from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of all prison inmates nationwide were found to have mental health problems.
Around nearly the same time as the Justice Department's report, the National Alliance on Mental Illness released a report showing a disparity between Louisiana's spending on community mental health services and the U.S. Average. While most states spent an average of 70 percent of their mental health budget on community mental health services, Louisiana only spent 30 percent.
The report also showed that only 17 percent of Louisianians with mental illnesses receive mental health care.
Between education, mental health, and Louisiana's other problems – such as an extremely high poverty rate – it's no wonder Louisiana has the highest murder rate and incarceration rate in the nation.
Louisiana's priorities on where it spends its money can take a lot of the blame for the high murder and crime rate. But politics can't take all the blame.
A report by the U.S. Department of Justice, in addition to confirming all the links between effective education and mental health institutions, also makes the case that communities and families have a huge impact on people.
Other police officials, such as NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, have continiously stated the importance between families and communities, and has suggested we focus on improving "family dynamics and relationships between young people."
In addition to activism for fixing Louisiana's priorities, there are things we can do as volunteers that could very well prevent criminal behaviors in the most vulnerable populations.
You could volunteer to tutor. As former President of the Service Coalition at the University of New Orleans, UNO's community service department, I have spoken to many who have volunteered with New Orleans Outreach, a non-profit group that works with needy schools to tutor children and adolescents. The volunteers always told me how effective the organization was at bettering the education and lives of the children.
New Orleans Outreach boasts the fact that student who participate in New Orleans Outreach programs at two New Orleans public schools showed the greatest academic gains of all students tested in Louisiana. Students who participate in Outreach programs score 27 points higher on LEAP Math tests and 24 points higher on LEAP English and Arts tests than the average student.
You could also volunteer as a mentor. I have also spoken to those who have become a mentor with the non-profit Each One Save One. Those volunteers are also surprised with just how much of an impact they seem to make in the childs life, many of the children coming from dysfunctional familes and/or with problems of their own.
The last suggestion I want to make is urging people to volunteer their time with Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners. Remember, statistically, those who are incarcerated are the most likely to become repeat offenders because they're let back out into society with little assistance and the burden of having a criminal record. Sending them books at least gives them some form of knowledge they can use when re-entering society.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you're motivated to become an activist and volunteer. Below are some links to other articles I've written on the topics of crime, murder, incarceration, education, volunteering, and the criminal justice system: