By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Irresponsibility and drug addiction, not poverty, is the driving force behind most local crimes, according to District Judges Ron Antos, Dennis Songer and Brian Arthur, who spoke to a United Way committee searching for the best way to spend its donated dollars.
All three judges told tale after tale of young defendants who never held a job and never intend to look for one, but rather relied on welfare benefits and charity to get by. Most of those defendants, Antos said, “who are just kids themselves” already have four or five children.
“There’s definitely a relationship between poverty and crime, but not in the way you think. Most of the thefts, retail thefts, burglaries are not people taking things for food but for narcotics. They need something, but it isn’t something to eat,” he told the 16-member panel of local community and business leaders.
Antos said he feels confident in saying 80 to 90 percent of the theft crimes processed through his Farrell office are alcohol- and drug-related. Asked if he thought poverty drove people to addiction, Antos said, “I think it’s the other way around.”
Songer agreed with Antos that drugs fuel crimes but admits that even he is shocked at what people will do to get them. “I was flabbergasted when I had a young woman detail what all she had done to get drugs and her mother was sitting right there. And she had no shame, absolutely none. That’s how strong addiction is,” he said.
But while all agreed that crimes related to drug abuse, and in particular heroin, overwhelm their offices on a daily basis, Antos suggested that lifestyle is a learned behavior that cycles through generations, and not an issue caused by a lack of money.
“These folks live in subsidized housing. Someone cuts their grass, someone plows the driveway. If they have a problem, they call maintenance. They have children and they know if they can get a kid classified with ADHD or one of those, and declared disabled, that’s more money. I see these strapping young men and women in front of me a few years later, physically able to work, but they don’t have a job and don’t want a job. They want to sit and wait for the mailman to bring the check,” Antos said.
The cycle starts, Antos said, when children don’t see their parents getting up and going to work. “They don’t have that example. They don’t have any clue how things should be done,” he added.
Songer said he is frustrated with the lack of accountability placed on parents. In many cases, the parents are absent and grandparents are raising the children. “And I’m sick of people trying to hold everyone accountable except who really should be accountable – the parents.”
“We have parents who don’t care what their kids are doing. These kids grow up without any value system. They eat pre-made dinners, they can’t clean the house because no one ever cleans the house. They can’t vacuum because no one ever vacuums. I agree that it’s a learned behavior.”
Often times, agency leaders said, people are “double- and triple-dipping” at area charities, making the effort to go one place for free food one day and another place the next day for more.
Several committee members asked if early education efforts would make a difference, but Alice Mattocks, chair of the committee, said many proven-successful programs are in place, but parents will not take advantage of them, often because it interferes with their schedules or requires extra effort.
Much discussion centered on funding United Way agencies to “fix” these problems, but one member, Randy Beck, a deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sharon, suggested an entirely different and low-cost approach.
“I see what you’re all talking about. We run two food programs. I’ve watched people come in and go through the bag of food and cherry-pick out four or five items with any value, maybe to sell or trade and then ditch the rest in the shrubs outside. And, at first, I was wondering why we even kept doing it. But over time, I started to get to know those folks. I’d learn their name, ask about their family, their dogs, things like that. I built a relationship with them. And that behavior began to change because I show them that I respect them. They are a part of our community and we care about them. If we all did that, think of the positive difference we could make.”
“I don’t want your money. I want your time. It will take ingenuity, mass dedication and it costs very little. Get the community involved. Don’t throw money at it, create a law or start a social program. You have to feed the greedy to get to the needy. That’s the way human nature is,” Beck said.