NEWS

Gangs: Experts Advocate Prevention over Prosecution and Prison

By Matthew Harwood

A former gangmember, an academic, a police officer, a local commissioner of safety, a government lawyer, and a psychologist all told Congress yesterday that law enforcement's overemphasis on prosecutions and stiffer criminal penalties for gang-related activity can be counterproductive. More resources should be devoted to prevention and education, they said.

"If police departments hope to move forward, build and sustain community trust and confidence, as well as build legitimacy," testified Frank G. Straub, commissioner of the White Plains, New York's Department of Public Safety, "They must admit that their preoccupation with fighting the 'war on crime' has done exactly the opposite - undermined their legitimacy in communities of color and eroded many of the gains through community policing."

The nation's reliance on prosecution and prison for gang-related activity is also a bad allocation of public resources, said Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

Leading economists from Columbia, Princeton, and Queens College, he says, have estimated that increasing high school graduation rates can reduce violent crime and property crime rates by 20 and 10 percent, respectively. Each student that graduates high school saves the United States $36,500.

Incarceration, on the other hand, costs money. "We spend anywhere from $35,000 to $70,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile in this country," said Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee.

Another problem with a strict law enforcement strategy is that it disproportionately affects minority children and young adults, Ogletree said. "Minority youth represented 61 percent of all youth detained in 2003, despite accounting for only about one-third of the nation's youth population."

Citing a recent study from the Pew Center, Straub noted that one in 100 people are now currently in prison in the United States. That number leaps to one in nine among black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

 "Regardless whether your motivation is to save money or to save lives," Conyers said, "we should reflect upon whether our resources are being used wisely by sending so many people to prison."

Ely Flores, a former South Central Los Angeles gang member and now a community activist, asked lawmakers  what would have become of him without the help of a local, federally-funded community organization.

He answered himself: "a long term prisoner, a wanted felon, or just another city and national statistic of incarcerated people of color. Your guess is as good as mine."

In and out of prison, Flores finally walked through the doors of LA CAUSA YouthBuild - a move that introduced him to a "life of positive transformation, self accountability, and leadership."

Now employed by YouthBuild in Los Angeles, Flores petitioned lawmakers to invest more in his organization. Lack of federal funds he says are turning away thousands of youths like him every year while 1,000 organizations have applied for federal YouthBuild funds only to be denied.

American kids that grow up in areas marked by high levels of violence and poverty, like Flores, says Dr. Robert Macy, founder and executive director of the Center for Trauma Psychology, experience the same deprivations as people caught up "identity conflicts" worldwide, such as ethnic cleansing in places like Rwanda and Kosovo.

"Violence is far more prevalent in communities of concentrated disadvantage," he says. "It is no accident that rates of gang involvement are higher there as well."

While those previously incarcerated for gang activity can be saved, it is nearly impossible, says Macy. Ironically, he says, locking up kids, he describes as "wannabe-gang members" for minor offences actually increases gang recruitment.

"Incarceration," he says, "actually forces young teens to choose a violent gang to protect themselves."

The good news is that when properly identified, kids with traumatic experiences that cope through violent behaviors can be treated, he says.

When prevention and intervention fail, however, said Major John Buckovich of the Richmond Police Department, police should use more coercive tactics to suppress gang activity.

"Where appropriate," he said, Richmond, Virginia, police use "enhanced sentences and federal charges ...  to effectively remove the most dangerous and influential gang members from the community."

The hearing came just a day after the FBI released its preliminary crime report, which said violent crime had fallen 1.4 percent in 2007 compared to 2006.

Kevin O'Connor, associate attorney general at the Department of Justice, said this decline can be attributed to collaboration between the federal government and state and local partners, who have embraced a strategy that balances law enforcement and prevention.

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