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To stop gangs, call the Scouts

January 21, 2007|Heather MacDonald | Heather MacDonald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of "Are Cops Racist?"

THE LOS ANGELES City Council recently paid $593,000 for a report on how to end the city's rising gang violence. The taxpayers didn't get their money's worth. The much-ballyhooed study, directed by civil rights attorney Connie Rice, makes a whopping 100 recommendations yet can't bring itself to mention the most important driver of gang involvement -- family breakdown.

"A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to L.A.'s Gang Violence Epidemic" recycles all the failed nostrums from the war on poverty, such as government-created jobs, "life-skills training," "parenting education and support" and "crisis intervention." Since the 1960s, trillions of dollars have been spent on such programs without so much as making a dent in the underclass culture that gives rise to gangs. And these initiatives will never make a significant difference in that culture as long as the vast majority of young males in inner-city neighborhoods are raised without their fathers.

To be sure, plenty of heroic single mothers are bringing up law-abiding young men. But the evidence by now is overwhelming: Boys raised in fatherless homes, on average, are disproportionately likely to get involved in crime and fail in school. Without a strong paternal role model, these boys are vulnerable to the lure of macho gang culture as a surrogate for a father's authority.

When the norm of marriage disappears from a community, furthermore, the pressure for young males to become socialized evaporates as well. Boys in South Los Angeles and other gang-plagued neighborhoods grow up with little expectation that they will have to woo and marry the mother of their children. The standard assumption is that girls and women will raise their children by themselves, resulting in an out-of-wedlock birthrate of greater than 70%. Freed from the necessity of marriage, boys have little incentive to develop the bourgeois habits of selfdiscipline and deferred gratification that would make them an attractive prospect as a husband.

Compared to this overwhelming reality, Rice's jargon-ridden recommendations border on irrelevancy. For instance, Proposal 4.21, addressed to no one in particular, holds: "Acquire expert assistance to provide culturally competent, linguistically fluent, developmentally appropriate services that improve program performance, facilitate communication and improve access to services for immigrant and/or isolated and alienated communities."

"A Call to Action" is also internally contradictory. Rice acknowledges that there is no evidence that the $82 million that the city already spends annually on gang interventions has had any effect. Yet she would repackage these types of programs into a huge new bureaucratic structure, which would include a deputy mayor for neighborhood safety, community action teams, a gang intervention advisory board, an expert action committee, a permanent oversight committee, an expert policy advisory board and an interagency intervention team -- at an undoubtedly low-balled estimated cost of $1 billion over 18 months. If the city's social service interventions have not been working on a local scale, there is no reason to think that going large scale with them, or coordinating them better, will markedly improve their effectiveness. To her credit, Rice says that nonperforming programs should be terminated or changed. Even if such an unprecedented bureaucratic miracle occurred, her assumption that there are performing programs to fill up a new department of neighborhood safety is ungrounded.

Fortunately, the city has within its reach a proven method for reducing violence: law enforcement. The data-driven, accountable policing pioneered by Police Chief William J. Bratton is the most successful government innovation of the last decade. Getting criminals off the streets and deterring others from joining them is the surest way to bring public safety to a community, and Bratton's policing revolution has proved wildly successful in doing just that, in L.A. and elsewhere.

But the Los Angeles Police Department remains preposterously understaffed. The city's top gang-fighting priority must be to bring more officers into the department so that commanders have the manpower they need to carry out Bratton's methods to their fullest extent.

Los Angeles County also must end the shameful triage in its jail system that puts criminals back on the streets before their sentences run out. It is unconscionable that the county has failed in its obligation to the public for so long.

Rice's war-on-poverty-era proposals put the cart before the horse. Effective policing is the prerequisite to her grander schemes. She wants a government job-creation program, yet no entrepreneur is going to locate in a neighborhood where criminals operate with impunity.

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