INTERVIEW: Lynn Curtis, President, Eisenhower Foundation 12/10/99

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Lynn Curtis was a graduate student, working on his Ph.D. in criminal justice at the University of Pennsylvania, when he was chosen to work on the bipartisan President's National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in 1969, just months after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The report, the product of tens of thousands of hours of work by an esteemed panel of experts from a broad range of philosophical and professional disciplines, concluded that "The greatness and durability of most civilizations has been finally determined by how they have responded to challenges from within. Ours will be no exception."

Thirty years after that historic effort, Mr. Curtis is President of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector offspring of that original commission. Last week, the foundation released "A Thirty Year Update of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence." The report, entitled, "To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility," reaches back three decades to the findings of the original report, especially to the warnings contained therein, and finds that in 1999, our public policies have, to a large degree, ignored the wisdom of the original findings.

Read about the report's findings in last week's issue at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/117.html#eisenhowerfoundation. The report can be obtained by calling (202) 429-0440, or writing to The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, 1660 L St., NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036.

This week, The Week Online spoke with Dr. Curtis:

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WOL: What does the Eisenhower Foundation do?

LC: In the early 1980's, we were able to reconvene a good number of the commissioners and staff of the original Kerner Commission and the original Violence commission and we reconvened them in the private sector. The mission is to focus on the agenda of those commissions, to make grants to inner-city, non-profit organizations that do everything from crime and drug prevention to youth development to educational reform to economic development and jobs. We demonstrate new programs, we replicate success, we evaluate that. We also give technical assistance to enhance the capacity of inner-city groups, we do a lot of reports to communicate what works and to criticize policies that don't.

WOL: The Office of National Drug Control Policy keeps saying that we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem, and yet they oversee a budget that is heavily weighted toward law enforcement and a policy that is the primary engine in the growth of the prison-industrial complex.

LC: Our report quotes the drug czar saying that the drug war has failed. We don't try to take on the mission of ONDCP, or to engage any agency directly. We do address drugs by talking about the racial bias in drug sentencing and we talk about the fact that 70% of the drug war budget being enforcement and 30% being treatment and prevention. We point out that in many European countries those numbers are basically reversed, and that we might well benefit from a realignment of that balance.

WOL: The report talks about states spending more on prisons than on higher education. Can you tell us what has brought that on, is there political consensus behind that trend, and what will need to happen to turn that around?

LC: Well, it is a fact that the states collectively spend more on prisons than on higher education, and we relate that fact to a 25% child poverty rate and that we're the only superpower in the world and the fact that one in every three young African American men are under criminal justice supervision. This is the litany of inequality, and we are saying that these are not wise investments based on what we know to work, and that these need to be turned around. We give a number of examples in the report of prevention programs up-front that are simultaneously crime and drug prevention programs and also develop youth, keep them in school and better employ them.

At the back end, there are some models like the one in Arizona, where the citizens of that state voted twice for a diversion. We think that that represents good progress and illustrates the type of policy that can be beneficial in terms of reduced recidivism and also in terms of reduced costs to the taxpayer. The report also points to after school programs, Head Start, the Ford Foundation's Quantum Opportunity Program, YouthBuild USA, the San Francisco Delancey Street model for the reintegration of ex-offenders and others. These are successful programs that need to be replicated to the scale of the problems they address at a national level.

Is it political? Sure. Politicians are emphasizing prison building and "zero tolerance," which the report states are clearly oversold as successful, at the expense of the consideration of other factors [for recently reduced violent crime rates] such as the booming economy. In the long run, though, we are still way, way out of line with the rest of the developed world in terms of violence, crime and imprisonment.

WOL: The report talks a lot about the fact that we know what works. How will it convince the public that we know what works and that the investment that the report advocates will be worthwhile?

LC: I look back to the 1992 riot in South Central Los Angeles after the first Rodney King verdict. There was a New York Times/CBS poll taken and they asked a national sample, "are you prepared to do more about the problems in the inner-city, especially when it comes to education and employment?" The majority said yes. The next question asked what the major obstacle to doing more, and the majority responded "lack of knowledge." So there's a real sense out there that we don't know what works.

Part of that has to do with the success of the constituency that believes in tax breaks for the rich and prison building for the poor in getting their message out. There is a level of sophistication there in terms of their financing and the elaborateness of their communications structure. Part of it has to do with the media, which, as you know, is controlled by eight large corporations, and they have their interests. But most people today get their information from the half-hour local newscasts, and there, there is a propensity to cover crime and violence, which is inexpensive and gets ratings. This tends to lead to a mindset among the public that nothing works.

WOL: So, having said that, is there hope?

LC: Again, I go back to what we found in the report, and that is, we do in fact know what works. And I think that there has been a realization, very recently, by progressive foundations, that the non-profit sector, which had lost a lot of its momentum during the eighties, is beginning to be rejuvenated. There does seem to be a stirring of people and institutions toward more organizing and advocacy on some of these issues. We are still, to a large degree, rolling the boulder up the hill. But yes, I am hopeful.

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Issue #118, 12/10/99 INTERVIEW: Lynn Curtis, President, Eisenhower Foundation | Republican Congressman, Senate Candidate Calls for Drug Maintenance Programs | Protesters Take Over Office of NYC Secretary of Human Resources | FDA-Approved Medical Marijuana Research Blocked Under New Federal Guidelines | Study Finds Poverty More Harmful to Children than Pre-Natal Exposure to Cocaine | Newsbriefs | Rebroadcast of Snitch Next Week | New Issue of Harm Reduction Communication Available Online | Deadline Extended for Year 2000 Drug Policy Foundation Achievement Awards | Editorial: A Typical Week in the Drug War
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