In discussing what social problems my Freshman Seminar class might like to address for their service learning project, the class leaned heavily toward wanting to do something about crime in New Orleans, particularly the amount of violent crime, which struck them on an emotional level that left some of them unable to articulate much beyond anger. “It’s just terrible,” they said, “and it gets worse and worse all the time and nobody can seem to do anything about it.” These reactions struck me in a number of ways, at once similar to the shocked, grief-stricken reactions of victim’s families that we’ve grown too accustomed to seeing in the news, and at the same time far removed from academic literature on the subject by economists, psychologists, and criminologists, that often frame our discussions and study of violent crime and its effects. What’s most apparent is that these students feel compelled to address this problem, not from a distance of helping out the communities of the less fortunate, but from the perspective of wanting to help their own communities, because the pain of communities ripped apart by violent crime is in fact their own pain.
The discussion then must turn to what causes young people to turn to lives of crime and violence and what can be done to stem these causes. Lack of viable economic opportunity and lack of education are commonly cited by students and experts alike as causes, and of course the two are related. Economists tell us that even a 5% increase in high school graduation rates can save the country billions of dollars in costs of crime, considering the costs of incarceration, policing, and adjudicating, along with the costs of property lost. Figures like these seem cold, and don’t seem to sufficiently target the problem in a way that might issue a stronger call to action. Yet in the face of raw emotions such as those expressed by my students, figures like these sometimes offer the only level of clear thought available. If it seems like absolutely nothing can be done to stop this problem, then perhaps through education, tied to economic opportunity, is the only clear path.