Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's Not Just Measure Y: Social Programs Don't Work

I read with interest V Smoothe's article today regarding problems with Oakland's Measure Y.

It's nice to see so many people coming around to view the outcomes of this initiative as a mistake. While I still support the funding mechanism -- a pleasantly regressive and gentrifying flat parcel tax -- I never thought the way the money was spent would amount to much.

The initiative funneled nearly all of its policing money into so-called "community policing." While this approach is successful in some other areas of the country, I've long been skeptical that something so soft and friendly could make a dent in Oakland's ongoing bloodbath. If the recent anti-police riots tell us anything, it's that our local hoodlums continue to hate the police, in spite of this friendlier approach.

By far the worst part of Measure Y is its "anti-violence" social programs. It is my opinion that the only truly functional anti-violence program is a determined police officer wielding a baton.

I was disappointed to see V Smoothe try to cast one of these programs as something of a success. In her article, she pointed out that when teens who had been suspended from school for truancy attended Measure Y programs, they were less likely than their non-program-attending peers to be suspended in the following year.

There's a common social sciences error being made here. It's the same one that hucksters exploit when selling vitamins or nutritional supplements on the radio.

The problem is that there is no way to know whether the students who attended the Measure Y programs would have had lower suspension rates the following year had they not attended the programs.

This is a critical point, because a student who does attend the program is probably more motivated that his peers to change behaviors. Maybe that student has a two-parent family at home and was pushed to do the program. Maybe he's just sick and tired of being a jerk. But whatever the reason, it's possible -- likely, even -- that the program itself is irrelevant.

V Smoothe describes the students who did not attend the program as a "control group." But here I believe she fails to understand the concept of a control group.

In science, a control group must not know that he is a member of the control. In medicine, this means the control receives a placebo treatment. In the case of Measure Y, it means the control group needs to be a set of people either who attended an alternate program or who asked to attend the program but were denied (and even that would be a questionable control).

I strongly suspect that if the research were conducted in this way, it would show the programs have no statistically significant effect.

This opinion is bolstered by the remainder of V Smoothe's article, which indicates that other Measure Y programs are doing nothing meaningful to stop recidivism. She rightly calls this outcome "dismal."

The basic problem with these programs is they assume that all criminally minded people are just searching for a way out of that lifestyle, if only the government could provide it to them.

This is a mistake. Criminals follow that lifestyle because they enjoy it and because it's a good way to make a lot of money without much work.

The only way to stop them from wanting to commit crimes is to make it unprofitable and painful. To that end, Oakland should stop focusing on community policing and shift toward instilling fear and respect in the minds of would-be criminals. We should take a page out of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's book.

Sentence criminals to hard labor for their crimes. Make them spend 8 hours a day walking in a waterwheel to generate electricity. Make them break rocks.

But let's not cut out Measure Y entirely. Let's enact more parcel taxes -- good, regressive taxes that encourage the poor to leave. Then, let's make our police department the most feared in the East Bay -- all the better to run more of the undesirables out of town.

It's time to abandon Leftist criminal coddling and give them a taste of the baton.


  1. Installing fear won't solve the problem of criminal or other distractions in a community. Our prisons are full of young people who did not see fear as a barrier to their out-of-bounds behavior.

    Although it is not a cure-all, community policing can have a positive impact by establishing a volunteer police chaplain program (at little of no cost to the PD). Assigning volunteer police chaplains to specific police sectors where their respective congregations are located accomplishes three purposes. 1) Clergy are known in the community and are privy to issues in their specific neighborhood. 2) A PD has an additional and respected voice in neighborhoods. 3) Parental control of neighborhood youth is enhanced. (What would grandma say if she knew what you are doing?) PD chaplains riding with police officers send a message to the community that the faith community is a player in reducing crime and public nuisances. “Stories of the Street: Images of the Human Condition” demonstrates the significant contribution volunteer police chaplains make in serving specific neighborhoods. Ref:
    Volunteer Police Chaplain Steve Best, (Ret.)

  2. Perhaps that's because prison isn't actually scary. Sitting around all day plotting how to defend your gang's turf is dangerous, but I think a lot of folks actually come to like it.

    Working in the fields for 10 hours a day, on the other hand, isn't quite such a good time. Maybe we need an Angola prison here in California.