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STANDING UP TO STREET GANGS

Restore Prevention Funding

June 10, 2002

Gang violence is of life and death importance, but is it worth $9 million a gangbanger to stop? Gov. Gray Davis seems to think so, since when he revised his budget in May he protected his pet project, a boot-camp type school in San Luis Obispo that for its first six months enrolled a single cadet--dubbed the $9-million kid for the state dollars spent to open the academy.

Then again, Davis seems not to care much about gang violence. His budget, after all, kept intact money earmarked for police--that's imperative--but axed the matching amount for prevention.

This, despite growing evidence that the most effective way to combat gangs is to hammer their criminal activity while trying to head it off by offering a societal lifeline to the children most vulnerable to the thug life's allure.

Think of gang violence as a cancer ravaging neighborhoods. Police and prosecutors are the surgeons and oncologists. Researchers have yet to find a magic cure. But they know something about how to prevent the disease. In 2000, the Legislature passed the Schiff-Cardenas Crime Prevention Act, allocating an extra $121 million for police and sheriffs to hire officers and buy equipment. It included an equal amount for mental health counselors, school-based probation officers, mentors and job-training programs.

It is the juvenile-justice equivalent of a campaign to urge people to quit smoking, get mammograms, eat vegetables and exercise. And Davis, in essence, has said that he wants to keep open the state's hospitals and morgues but sacrifice checkups, flu shots and other preventive care.

California's deficit is huge and requires huge cuts. Davis' stubborn allegiance to the boot-camp boondoggle--only two dozen bad-boy cadets have completed the program since it opened last year, bringing the cost per student to about $500,000--isn't good economics. Besides, studies show that yell-and-drill programs don't deter crime.

Too bad the governor didn't attend a conference on crime last week in Sacramento, where he would have heard researchers from around the country talk about ways to evaluate gang programs to make sure they actually work--to quantify results by something other than the twinkle in a child's eye, and to measure how much that twinkle cost and how many crimes it prevented.

By jointly sponsoring the conference, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Health and Human Services Secretary Grantland Johnson showed that they understood the philosophy behind the Crime Prevention Act, which the Legislature had the good sense to pass. Lawmakers are already working to return the balance in how the money is spent, knowing that this proven approach succeeds only because it links law enforcement with effective community-based social services.

If Davis is serious about stopping gang violence--and doing it economically--he'll invest in what works.

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