Sophont
Saturday, January 24, 2004
 
Scientist at Work: On Crime as Science (a Neighbor at a Time): "Dr. Felton Earls was on the street, looking for something at ground level that would help explain his theories about the roots of crime. He found it across from a South Side housing project, in a community garden of frost-wilted kale and tomatoes.

'That couldn't be more perfect,' said Dr. Earls, a 61-year-old professor of human behavior and development at the Harvard School of Public Health. Gazing at a homemade sign for the garden at the corner of East Brookline Street and Harrison Avenue, he pointed out four little words: 'Please respect our efforts.'

'We've been besieged to better explain our findings,' he said. For over 10 years, Dr. Earls has run one of the largest, longest and most expensive studies in the history of criminology. 'We always say, It's all about taking action, making an effort.'

Dr. Earls and his colleagues argue that the most important influence on a neighborhood's crime rate is neighbors' willingness to act, when needed, for one another's benefit, and particularly for the benefit of one another's children. And they present compelling evidence to back up their argument.

Will a group of local teenagers hanging out on the corner be allowed to intimidate passers-by, or will they be dispersed and their parents called? Will a vacant lot become a breeding ground for rats and drug dealers, or will it be transformed into a community garden?

Such decisions, Dr. Earls has shown, exert a power over a neighborhood's crime rate strong enough to overcome the far better known influences of race, income, family and individual temperament."

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