June 13, 2008

House committee look for new ways to curb gang activity

By Will Skowronski
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Stable upbringings and early-age prevention programs, not handcuffs, will keep youths out of gangs, a well-known civil rights attorney told House members Tuesday.

“If you give a child a chance, it makes a difference,” said Charles Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor.

Ogletree presented a review of research that found public support for education and prevention over prosecution and longer prison sentences, a strategy he said also works.

He testified along with other academicians, law enforcement representatives and a former gang member before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security about effective ways to address gang violence. The six largely agreed with Ogletree.

Commissioner Frank Straub of the White Plains, N.Y., police department said the city was forced to get creative after series of violent crimes shook the community in 2006.

“There is not single response to youth violence and gang activity,” Straub said. “Enforcement alone is insufficient.”

Besides increasing patrols and arresting gang members, Straub said the police department met with the city’s Youth Bureau and community leaders to come up with other ways to end the violence. Multiple programs were established to bring police and youths from troubled areas together, create alternatives to imprisonment and provide jobs for at-risk youth.

There haven’t been any murders in White Plains since 2006, and violent crime continues to drop.

Ely Flores, a former gang member, grew up in South Central Los Angeles without a father. More youths from the neighborhood, Flores said, were sent to prison than college.

“Where I’m from being scarred and bruised is like wearing stripes on the battlefield,” Flores said.

But a violent childhood, Flores said, doesn’t mean a person will always be dangerous. After a 14-year-old friend was murdered, Flores reached out to two youth support programs that changed his life, LaCausa YouthBuild and the Youth Justice Coalition. He’s since traveled to Israel and Palestine to try to bring peace between those youths.

“Think about my story,” Flores told the House members. “A gang member can become a productive member of society. A gang member can become an advocate for peace and an advocate for justice.”

Robert Macy, executive director of the Boston Children’s Foundation, said rather than keeping violent people off the street, imprisonment can actually increase gang membership as people look for protection in jail.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee chairman, said he hopes the testimony will help stall a proposed “suppression” bill that calls for even stronger sentencing of suspected gang members and create support for community-based intervention programs.

The incarceration rate of about 700 of every 100,000 Americans, Scott said, is seven times the international average, but violence continues anyway.

“You can reduce crime or play politics,” Scott said.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said lawmakers need to change their way of thinking.

Some very violent people need to be arrested, Waters said, but there are many who don’t.

“Jobs, job training and investment will do the job,” she said.

But Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said gang activity will only be reduced once police crack down on the established gang networks.

“Letting gang networks run free is not free, either,” Forbes said. “We need a combined approach that begins by pulling down these networks.”

Forbes said the suggested programs do not address the problems posed by gangs such as MS-13 that are largely made up of illegal immigrants.

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