Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fighting crime through health care?

There really are smarter ways to fight crime than really long prison sentences. We all remember our grandmothers telling us an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I don't know if there is any realm in which that old adage is more true than in crime policy. The best way to reduce crime rates isn't to punish crime or deter crime. The best way is to prevent people from growing up to become criminals.

The interesting headline today on Newsweek's website is "Health Care Reform Can Reduce Crime." The article highlights a program operating in 29 states that assigns nurses to monitor teenage mothers for the first two years of their children's lives. From the article, I'm not exactly sure what support the nurses provide, but I would guess it could cover things like nutrition, basic health questions, and early childhood learning. The program was designed to improve health among the participants, but as a side bonus, the children served by this program were being arrested and convicted a lot less than children who weren't part of the program. I would assume those kids were healthier, too.

Why does a program like this affect crime rates? The article doesn't get into much detail on that point, either. But we do know that things like Head Start and early education can have huge effects on long-term success. Research has also shown that female participants in team sports have lower teen pregnancy rates and higher college matriculation rates. We also know that childhood nutrition is tremendously important. Providing these kinds of supports to children who are "at risk" (is that still the accepted term?) seems like a pretty good idea, then. Isn't it in all of our best interests to prevent children from becoming criminals?

Some congressional Democrats want to take the program national but some conservative groups and leaders oppose it. Sure, 'cause we wouldn't want kids with young, poor, uneducated parents to grow up healthier, more stable, and less likely to end up in prison. (Not to mention helping those young, poor, uneducated parents achieve success as parents.) I personally think anytime we stumble upon some little program like this, that seems to help people stay away from a criminal path, we should run with it. We need to be far more creative and comprehensive in our approaches to fighting crime. And apparently we might want to begin the fight at birth.

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