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Early Intervention Is Critical in Discouraging Gang Membership

Society can either commit the resources to provide alternatives for first-time offenders or pay a larger price later.

April 05, 1998|BILL BROOKS | Bill Brooks is director of community programs for the Orange County Probation Department and chairman of the Children's Services Coordination Committee

Why do young people from the same neighborhood go in different directions in life--some of them going to prestigious universities and others to state prison?

All of the studies I have read indicate that those who are able to avoid the seductive influence of gangs in their neighborhood are generally young people with somebody who believes in them, who listens to them and who gives them a vision of what life can eventually offer.

In January, the fourth annual Report on the Condition of Children in Orange County was released by the Board of Supervisors. This report contains many details about children living in Orange County, from their infant through teenage years, on issues from infant health to the rate of juvenile arrests.

It is generally agreed by those working with gangs that there are three primary strategies to be used: prevention, intervention and enforcement/suppression. Several Orange County police departments and the Sheriff's Department have put together a prevention network in Orange County designed to discourage younger minors from joining gangs in the first place. Enforcement/suppression is clearly a well-developed program and a model for other jurisdictions. The crucial piece to be tackled in Orange County is the area of gang intervention.

The Orange County Probation Department has been attempting to address this issue and provide some aggressive early intervention for 13- and 14-year-old minors who have been referred to the Probation Department for their first offense, and who we believe will become chronic delinquents.

Over a seven-year period, the Probation Department surveyed 6,000 cases of minors entering the juvenile justice system for the first time. We found that 70% never came back; 20% to 22% came back two or three more times; and 8% to 10% of these minors came back four to 15 times and continued their delinquent careers until they were 18 years old. They then went on to the adult criminal justice system.

From this study, the Probation Department now has implemented the 8% Early Intervention Program in North County. It attempts to offer these young first offenders options and alternatives to gang membership. Many have never experienced anything beyond their own neighborhoods, including trips to the beach, time in the mountains or visits to museums.

We are trying to give them the structure, support and supervision they have not received from their families. We also provide them with stability during the day, give them a sense of hope and let them know what they can be versus what society believes they will inevitably become, namely gang members. We are delivering this experimental model program through a multi-agency Youth and Family Resource Center composed of an on-site school run by the Orange County Department of Education and five-day programming operated by staff from the Probation Department, Boys' Republic, Community Service Programs and the Health Care Agency.

We believe that this strategy of aggressive early intervention, coupled with the concentrated resources we are bringing to bear, will, for some minors, make a difference in what seems to be an inexorable progression from a first offense at an early age to full-blown gang membership by the time these same minors are 16 or 17 years old. The 8% study, in fact, indicated that at age 14, 15% of the minors in the 8% group were already involved in gangs in some way, and by age 16, 65% of the minors in the same category were well on their way to becoming gang members. Obviously, this presents a window of opportunity for intervention, and we believe that by giving these young people a choice, and the support they need, some of them will not go on to join gangs.

Anyone who prepares adult pre-sentencing reports, as I have, realizes that often a common denominator of prison inmates is their first arrest at an early age for a minor offense. Even though all of the indicators were generally present to predict a life of crime, nothing was generally done to intervene and give them the support, stability, direction and choices that could have made a difference.

After 32 years as a probation officer in both Los Angeles and Orange County, I have come to the conclusion that it is either "pay now or pay later." Either we invest the resources necessary to successfully intervene with this young offender population we believe destined for gang membership, or we pay a horrendous price later, both in fiscal and human terms.

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