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Crime doesn't pay, but law-abiding behavior might be compensated

There are many complex factors that need to be considered in any discussion about fighting and preventing crime. Most can now agree that high crime rates are not simply the result of personal irresponsibility and low moral character. Instead, it is now clear that socioeconomic status and race play significant roles in the equation.

If we accept the idea that crime is complex, we also need to accept that the solution to crime may not be obvious, either. The "tough on crime" approach championed in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in record-high prison populations, but they didn't seem to directly impact crime rates. So if punishment alone isn't effective, what other options should be considered?

How about an approach that offers positive incentives for reform rather than the threat of more punishment? Our nation's capitol - the District of Columbia - is currently considering such an idea. The D.C. Council recently approved a measure that would offer stipends to certain young offenders who have been convicted of gun crimes and have already served their incarceration sentences. If enacted, about 50 young offenders would have the opportunity to earn stipends (of approximately $9,000 or more) if they avoid further offenses and continue to participate in education, job training and behavioral health programs.

The proposed plan in D.C. is modeled after an already successful program in Richmond, California. After implementing the program, gun-related homicides in Richmond have declined by 76 percent.

Critics of this proposal argue that cities would be paying criminals to stay out of trouble - something the rest of us are expected to do without compensation. But there is more to the story. After being released from prison, many offenders face mounting economic obligations (rent, child support, etc.) while also facing job discrimination because of their criminal record. A stipend could ease financial burdens considerably during what is often a very precarious time for offenders seeking to make positive changes.

To be sure, these stipends alone could not solve the crime problem in America. But they could reduce certain types of violent crimes, thus making entire communities safer. Should such an approach be tried here in Wisconsin?

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