By Chief Randall Aragon, Conway, Arkansas, Police Department
was raised in “Hell’s Kitchen,” in New York City. My parents were hardworking, blue-collar workers, and I vividly remember my late mother’s voracious reading habit. Every day when I would arrive home from school and enter our living room, I observed her reading a novel or a magazine. She explained how thrilling it was to travel the world in her mind by means of the words on the page. Because it sounded like fun to me, I bought into her logic. Within a few weeks of my 11th birthday, my Aunt Stella (who probably got the idea from my mother) gave me the novel The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. This was the start of my rewarding lifetime relationship with the world of reading.
Back then, even without access to studies that associate criminality with reading difficulties, it was clear to me that the kids in my neighborhood that I knew were having reading and writing problems were always getting into trouble at school and in our community.
This connection between criminality and problems with literacy was again significant to me early in my law enforcement career. As a criminal investigator for a fairly large metropolitan law enforcement agency, I continued to realize that the vast majority of those I arrested for major crimes lacked literacy skills and education. In fact, I had to be extremely careful how I interviewed or interrogated many arrested suspects, because they could not comprehend many of the typical questions I needed to ask them. At every rung along my way up the leadership ladder, I would look out and shake my head in remorse at how a lack of literacy enhances the potential for a life of criminal and antisocial behavior.
Numerous studies support what the real world had revealed to me while growing up and also as I advanced in my career. Just a casual glance at available statistics relating to literacy takes one’s breath away. The National Assessment of Education Policy (NAEP) reported that in 2000, 37 percent of fourth-graders in the United States scored below the basic test levels.1 Illiteracy costs the United States more than $225 billion a year in lost productivity.2 The problem is tied to unemployment, crime, poverty, and family problems. Many studies and common sense demonstrate that a quality education is oneof the most cost-effective forms of crime prevention. Literacy skills can help deter young people from committing criminal acts and can greatly decrease the likelihood that peoplewill return to crime after release from prison. Research has postulated that even though illiteracy may not directly cause criminal behavior, young people who have received inadequate education or who exhibit poor literacy skills are found at disproportionate numbers within the criminal justice system.
Nationally syndicated columnist Jim Davidson has been working on a national literacy program for years. His energy charged vision to move his literacy project to the next level gave birth to his brainchild: A Bookcase for Every Child. It goes without saying that when offered the opportunity to serve as cochair of this one-of-a-kind project, I was greatly honored and gladly accepted the appointment.
This program focuses on empowering children of all socioeconomic segments of society to become addicted to reading rather than to drugs or alcohol and to provide them with the necessary educational leverage to be successful. Most youths have sharp, alert minds and can achieve tremendous success if someone can prevent them from responding to negative influences and motivate them to see their own value and potential. To ignite children’s interest in reading, whatever their interests, this countywide literacy campaign will coordinate the construction of top-quality oak bookcases (with the recipient child’s name inscribed therein) and provide some donated, gently used, quality books to deserving children, who are selected by the committee for A Bookcase for Every Child.
Current committee members in Conway, a city of approximately 55,000, include the mayor, the publisher of the local newspaper, pastors, librarians, educators, and corporate executives, both active and retired, as well as law enforcement officers.
The funds to purchase materials to build these bookcases are raised from proceeds from Jim Davidson’s book, Learning, Earning & Giving Back. The book retails for $15.95, and Jim is giving back $9.00 of this amount to state and local literacy projects, with $5.00 earmarked for bookcase building materials. By raising money in this way, we accomplish three important objectives. First, by using only private funds, the program does not place a strain on an already overburdened tax system. This method also demonstrates the principle of self-reliance to children and young people from low-income families, and, probably most important of all, it demonstrates to these young people that someone really cares for them and their future.
The program receives incredible community-based support from all segments of the city, including discounted building materials from the local Home Depot as well as local retired and active law enforcement officers with carpentry skills to build these exquisite bookcases.
A Bookcase for Every Child is unquestionably a novel program that we hope will be adopted and launched nationwide by other criminal justice executives desiring to prevent and control crime and disorder in their communities. Do not hesitate to contact syndicated columnist Jim Davidson at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Randall Aragon at (email@example.com) with questions regarding initiating this program in your community.■
1U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000, NCES 2001-499, by Patricia L. Donahue et al. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2001), 15.
2“A Fundamental Human Write,” University of Minnesota Gateway to Research and Inventions 1 (Fall 2002): 4, http://www.ospa.umn.edu/communications/publications/gateway/Fall2002.pdf (accessed August 22, 2007).