Saturday, November 3, 2007

Mean Streets

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times had articles on the same topic last week: the state of the Los Angeles effort to bring down violent crime among the homeless in the Skid Row area. Not surprisingly, the articles, although both quite factual, took different tones on the topic. The proximate reason for the post was that LA agreed not to appeal an lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties union which, as I understand it, undercut a key part of a year long campaign to reduce violent crime in Skid Row. (I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which article was written more from the point of view of the ACLU position, and which was written more from the point of view of LA cops on the street.)

These kinds of issues are perpetual paradoxes for Christians concerned about compassion for the poor. The LA program drew on other successful “broken window” programs in which the city prosecutes even low level crimes in a concerted effort to clean up an area. This makes sense from the economic point of view in that social systems can have undesirable equilibria that can not be knocked loose by small changes. In this case, the policy at issue was apparently the crime of pitching tents in the public rights of way on the sidewalk. If a program such as this seems heavy-handed but results in a decrease in crime (and here I mean specifically violent crime inflicted upon the homeless), is it compassionate or not? If, from a Biblical perspective, one could make arguments for or against, is it appropriate for Christians to support using the court system to intervene against the political process?

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