Hard to give governor’s 2010 anti-crime program the benefit of the doubt

Written By EDITORIALS Posted: 04/13/2014, 06:24am

When a government program is botched from the outset, everything about it becomes suspect.

If money from the program flows to an elected official’s husband, you have to wonder — even more than you might usually wonder.

If a teen hired by the program gets caught up in a murder rap, you can’t help but wonder why that teen was ever hired.

When a government program is poorly executed at the outset, as was an anti-crime program set up by Gov. Pat Quinn, the benefit of the doubt fades fast.

In August 2010, just before a tough election that pitted Quinn against Republican state Sen. Bill Brady, the governor announced the launching of an ambitious anti-violence effort. He was responding to a very real problem — that was one bloody summer in Chicago — but the $55 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program his administration quickly launched in October 2010 was rife with problems, according to a scathing audit released late last month by the state’s auditor general.

The auditor called it “hastily implemented” and cited “pervasive deficiencies” in “planning, implementation and management.” Researchers evaluating the program weren’t even asked to gauge whether it had any impact.

The auditor’s report was followed by two stories in the Sun-Times that further cast doubt on the program’s management. First, the Sun-Times reported that the husband of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown was paid $146,000 over two years. Then the Sun-Times told of the fate of two teens hired as part of the program to hand out anti-violence literature: One is dead and the other faces murder charges tied to his shooting.

Was Brown’s husband reasonably paid or overpaid? We don’t know enough to say.

But the auditor’s report begs the question.

Should the two teens have been hired? Again, we find it hard to say. By definition, such anti-crime programs must take a chance on young people who could be trouble.

But the auditor’s report — because it reveals such a lack of oversight — begs the question.

A fair-minded reckoning becomes all the more difficult because of the inevitable self-serving politics. When the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative was launched weeks before the fall 2010 elections, critics said Quinn was just trying to curry favor with African-American voters. Now, in the heat of another election season, Quinn’s political foes are no less eager to take him down.

Sen. Bill Brady, one of four Republicans vying in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, has called Quinn’s anti-violence program a “slush fund” and says “it smacks of promises made in areas that needed good turnout to win.”

Quinn’s spokeswoman dismisses such allegations as “sick and insulting.” She also says Quinn’s office became aware of oversight problems with the state agency running the program a year and a half into its life and quickly moved it to another agency that imposed much stronger controls.

But much of the $55 million had been spent by then — and no one can say to what effect.

The frustration here — and a saving grace for Quinn — is that anti-crime efforts aimed at the grass roots, such as the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, are commendable, even essential, when done well. They are an important complement to the work of the police, schools, families and employers. Quinn’s program, at least as advertised, invested in youth mentoring and employment assistance, school-based counseling, developing parent leaders and helping ex-convicts successfully re-enter their communities.

But dreaming up a program is one thing. Running it well, which Quinn failed to do, is quite another.

The governor’s office insists that the 23 Chicago agencies overseeing the program’s direct services placed thousands of people in jobs, counseling and other services and notes that 16 of the 23 agencies are still state grantees because of their long track records of good work. But the auditor’s report casts real doubt over the entire enterprise.

Our concern now is that the very legitimacy of such grassroots efforts will be disdainfully dismissed,

It should not be — not if the men running for governor are as committed to creating safe communities as they are to scoring easy political points.

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