UWT graduates first crime-fighter class
A tip of the mortarboard today for 33 new crime-fighting warriors for justice.
These are no amateurs. On Friday, they became the first students to graduate with a criminal justice major from the University of Washington Tacoma.
They want to bust fraud, pluck kids off the road to violence and turn felons into law-abiding taxpayers. Those are big goals for a big job.
When UWT officials wanted to expand its majors, they consulted Tacomans.
“The Department of Social Work created this program,” said Diane S. Young, the director of that department. “They went into the community and asked what kinds of programs are needed and kept hearing ‘criminal justice.’”
That makes sense in a community where schools, cops and grandmothers see themselves as crime fighters on the same team.
They’re always looking for successful tools, and if they can’t find what they need, they develop their own.
Either way, academic rigor is a good way to stop throwing money at ideas that don’t work.
This is why the first graduates in UWT’s Criminal Justice major are such a welcome addition. Over time, they’ll increase accountability and innovation.
“We wanted to put a social work stamp on a major that is generally hard-core law enforcement,” Young said.
Don’t read that as being soft on crime. Read it as being smart on crime.
Kelly Stock, 24, of Gig Harbor, is the daughter of a retired Tacoma firefighter. She remembers when the family couldn’t drop in at her father’s downtown station without being accosted, and how dangerous the Hilltop was when gangsters were in charge.
It’s better now, and she wants to make it better still. That means finding ways to make people less dangerous when they come out of prison than when they went in.
As Young pointed out, 95 percent of prisoners will get out someday.
The question she asks: “What do we do with the bad guys once we have them in prison?”
Social work disciplines may hold part of the answer, emphasizing reform and measuring the success (or failure) of programs.
Edmond Dennis, 24, of Federal Way, sees a model in prison work programs.
“At some prisons, they get on-the-job training. All the work in plumbing, painting and electrical is done by prisoners,” he said. “They get the training they need to find jobs, and it also reduces the cost of running the prison.”
Young sees success in getting kids inside some women’s prisons to see – and in some cases, to live – with their parents. The children bond. Some moms learn parenting skills and thrive on the possibility of being with their children again.
“But when they get out, they can’t find jobs or housing,” said Kristin Olenick, 21, of Kent.
“It’s like society sets them up for failure,” Dennis said.
Failure is expensive. When criminals cycle through courts and prison, it’s on our dime.
Dennis sees promise in restorative justice. In it, victims have a chance to tell criminals how much harm they’ve done. Criminals have the obligation to abate that harm through community service.
Shari Barnes, 49, of Browns Point, sees power in prevention. One kid who turns into a taxpayer instead of a career criminal saves piles of tax money. The science that identifies programs that work, and flashy ideas that don’t, makes the most of sparse funding.
Jessica Esguerra, 22, of Fircrest grew up in a military family with law enforcement ties, and realized jails and cops can’t fix some things.
“Police officers have to understand that mental illness may be a factor when they arrive at a scene,” she said. “The mental health system is losing a lot of funding.”
That means some people go to jail and prison when they need hospitals. It means they’re released without good community support and end up in the crime cycle.
Young pointed to another problem: She thinks the bar that determines who’s a danger to self or others is too high. Studies, she noted, show that when mental hospital beds are cut, the use of jail beds rises.
That’s good thinking. We can expect big things from these new crime fighters, these new justice warriors.
By the numbers
The University of Washington Tacoma graduated the largest class in its history on Friday.
Year founded: 1990.
Student enrollment: 3,662.
Number graduated this year: 1,341.
Number graduated last year: 1,150.
Total number of graduates since founding: More than 12,000.
Undergraduate degree programs: 27, including two new programs this year – criminal justice and sustainable urban development.
kathleen.merryman @thenewstribune.com 253-597-8677 blog.thenewstribune.com/street