02/21/2013 03:14 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Rethinking 'Tough on Crime'

On February 15 President Obama came to Chicago to talk about violence. He spoke at a school close to the school attended by one of Chicago's latest casualties, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. And while Obama evoked the memories of Hadiya and the children of Sandyhook Elementary, killed en masse last December, he also spoke of those with "holes in their hearts" so wide that they take up arms to kill others. For the first time I heard a politician humanize those who shoot and who kill. He did not do this to minimize the importance of the lives they took. He did it to see clearly the path to saving lives.

This country has a vindictive obsession with the rhetoric of being "tough on crime." But if we really want violence to stop, we are going about it in the wrong way. Violence is a reaction to many very real forces that are normalized where there is concentrated trauma. Those that actively shoot others, some of whom glorify this violence, have endured incredible damage. Most of the time this damage has been measured or documented in a number of systems such as child welfare, schools, criminal justice, or mental health.

Currently Illinois has many blockades that prevent these systems from sharing data that could most easily identify those at highest risk of killing others. Not only would we reduce the costs of funerals, hospitals, criminal justice and incarceration costs, we could successfully seize the opportunity to reclaim troubled youth and help them to function successfully in society by offering true treatment, opportunities, and resources before their incarceration becomes the only choice. Perhaps it is most criminal of all that we throw away important opportunities to intervene with these individuals before they pack their existential crises in their waistbands and unload them on other human beings.

If we do not adequately educate, support, and protect our children, they will continue to arm themselves. Those that are systematically marginalized lose hope and do not expect to be protected by mainstream structures such as the police or school personnel. And in Chicago, summer jobs programs for youth, affordable mental health care, and outreach efforts to reengage chronically truant youth are either endangered or extinct. As a society we are forced to find the funds to sweep up the bodies. It's a pity we are not forced to keep them from dropping in the first place.

I think it's impossible to make the lasting changes we need without fully confronting how vilifying shooters makes problems worse. When we refuse to see these individuals and their sizeable burdens clearly and in context it allows society to justify a sole reliance on criminalization after a catastrophic event. As a city we have the data to accurately identify who needs help. With justice reinvestment dollars we can make smart reallocations to help fund efforts that transform lives rather than continue to curtail their human potential. We can change the course of those that spin their wheels playing deadly games rather than being reclaimed and redirected to a path of productivity.