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Lawmaker urges U.S. standards for gang intervention workers

Measure modeled on L.A. plan would specify services to be provided by agencies seeking government funding and demand proof that youths were being diverted into job programs.

August 11, 2009|Scott Gold

Officials on Monday unveiled a federal bill that would create national standards and accountability for gang intervention workers as part of a Los Angeles-based effort to professionalize the growing and controversial field.

The bill, which was introduced by U.S. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), is the first such national initiative to regulate intervention workers who act as liaisons between law enforcement and communities. Police and intervention workers have a long history of distrust, but authorities have come to rely on intervention workers for such matters as monitoring street gossip and preventing retaliatory shootings.

"We gave the world the Crips and the Bloods," Watson said during a visit to the headquarters of Communities in Schools, a North Hills youth center. "Now it is time we take a leadership role and change the tremendous influence gangs have had on young people and the entire society."

The bill is modeled after a similar, locally approved plan introduced by Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas.

Among other provisions, the bill spells out those services the federal government expects intervention agencies to deliver, such as street mediation and crisis response at schools. It also seeks to hold intervention agencies accountable by using "evidence-based" accounting of gang-related violence and the numbers of young people who have been routed into job development programs.

The standards would apply to intervention agencies seeking direct federal funding or local government agencies seeking federal funding for contracted intervention services. Watson said she will ask U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to sponsor a companion measure in the Senate.

Proponents of the measure say intervention services save money because the cost of intervention is a fraction of incarceration. There are 3,000 juveniles in Los Angeles County behind bars or on probation. It costs an average of $252,000 per year to incarcerate a juvenile. It costs an average of $1,400 per year to provide intervention services to one youth -- services that can mark "a way out of a dead-end lifestyle," Watson said.

In Los Angeles, the city's renewed emphasis on gang intervention as a method of coping with crime, gangs and poverty has come with great success and no small amount of heartache.

Crime rates have tumbled, and gang violence in particular is at a low point. Police commanders have cited numerous episodes in which intervention workers eased tensions between rival gangs or crafted lasting truces -- work that no one else could have done.

But several high-profile gang intervention workers have been charged with serious crimes. And at the end of July, city officials were forced to sever ties with a taxpayer-funded gang intervention agency in South Los Angeles called Unity T.W.O. after questions were raised about the agency's finances, standards and sexual harassment allegations that had been levied against some of its employees.

"It's been a long road," said William "Blinky" Rodriguez, executive director of Communities in Schools. "We have asked to be evaluated -- for the naysayers. . . . We are still here because we are being held accountable."


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