As you know, there was another massacre at a school this week. As always, people are pointing fingers. President Obama went on TV to blame guns. I’ve heard others blame Muslims. At some point somebody will blame the school for a security blunder. Somebody years ago, no doubt, ignored signs of some mental disturbance. Or somebody bullied the killer when he was a child.
Ultimately, according to “experts,” we’re all responsible.
I think it is time to get back to basics. It’s about personal character.
This week I saw both ends of the spectrum. We’re trying a young man for his role in three armed robberies. I’m preparing for trial in another court—in that case a young man is accused of walking into an office and shooting a mechanic to death.
But, on Monday night I addressed a group of high school and middle school students and their parents. The high school kids were members of the Key Club. The younger students belong to the middle school equivalent, called the Builders Club. I stayed afterward to talk with as many of these kids as I could. They were amazing. All of them wanted to succeed in life and a refreshing number of them wanted to serve others. They soaked up any suggestions I offered.
What is the difference? Is it race? No, these students were white, black, Hispanic and Asian.
Was it economic? I don’t think so. I’m sure the parents of many of the Key Club and Builders Club students struggle to make ends meet.
Sociologists will offer any number of “explanations” as to why some people commit crimes and others don’t. I think it is simpler than that.
All of us experience conflict between the good character and the bad character within us. Then we make good or bad choices. When those choices break the law, we are personally accountable. It’s all about character and choices.
Now, of course, some people lack the sanity to be held responsible for their actions. Those are few and far between and we have mental hospitals for them.
So, if you ask me how we can decrease crime, my answer is simple. We need to encourage people to feed their good character and suppress bad character. How do we do this?
Families and churches are the most successful developers of good character. But, not everybody has a good family and most people don’t go to church. Is there something that we can do for those people?
I think so. Organizations that offer mentoring to young people can help develop good character. So can athletics. And the military has a long history of successful character-building.
What about the criminal justice system?
I’m not sure that it is the role of the criminal justice system to build good character. I do think we can discourage bad choices by providing distasteful consequences for crime.
Our best chance to build good character in law-breakers would be in juvenile court. But state law ties the hands of judges. They can’t sentence delinquent teens like they want to. And, even if they could, there is a shocking lack of resources. Too often the lesson kids get from juvenile court is that there is little consequence for crime.
Every once in a while somebody emerges from our system with better character.
But, by the time bad character leads to crime, it is usually too late. We need to start much earlier.
Start building character, start requiring personal accountability. And quit pointing fingers at everybody else.
Scott Ballard is District Attorney for the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which consists of Fayette, Pike, Spalding and Upson counties.