Urbana city officials explore the correlation between poverty and crime

By Nora Roche

A recent string of bank robberies in Urbana could reflect the city’s poverty rate and social service spending, said Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing. 

The robbery of Urbana’s First Financial Bank, 2510 Philo Rd., on April 14 was the city’s fourth bank robbery in 2015. Urbana police Lt. Bryant Seraphin said this is a fairly high number for Urbana as the city can go a whole year without any robberies.

“Our police department has a pretty good track record of tracking down the people that do bank robberies,” Prussing said. “Once you catch people, they are not out and doing it again.”

Prussing said she believes the recent spike in bank robberies is part of a larger problem, and a study exploring the commonalities between the criminals could explain the issue. 

The specific reason behind the increase in robberies is currently unknown; however, Kelly Mierkowski, manager of the Grants Management Division for Urbana, said poverty might be part of the issue.

“We have too many people in poverty, period. To me there is no excuse for poverty,” said Urbana Alderman Charlie Smyth, Ward 1. “In a country as wealthy as ours, the income level is so disparate, it is getting worse. As a society, we have moved away from helping people.”

There are mechanisms in place for handling bank robberies and consideration is made for mentally ill and juvenile offenders. Seraphin said in one case, a juvenile involved in a bank robbery was sentenced to seven years in jail, rather than 15 years as an adult. 

A few juveniles who were arrested in relation to robberies acted under adult direction, Prussing said. Smyth said similar situations can be avoided by giving local children the proper guidance from the start.

“My highest priority for social service spending, the little that we do, is for these early childhood programs — any and all of them that involve working with kids early on — because they pay off,” Smyth said.  “It is a small investment for a big pay-off twenty years down the road.”

Officials have also worked to increase the safety of banks. Currently, Urbana law enforcement and bank officials meet monthly to discuss security. 

Bank security consists of standard safeguards such as surveillance cameras and security guards at entrances.

Seraphin said while there is concern for the people involved in the robberies, they are also concerned about those subjected to them. 

“On the flip side when someone’s relative … is the teller, (who) is sobbing afterwards, (thinking) that she or he might die, I don’t ever want us to forget that part of the equation either,” Seraphin said.

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