New Approaches to Curbing Teen Crime

Youth outreach programs and targeted policing reduce rates from Boston to Los Angeles

When he was 17 years old, Greg Mathis was arrested and convicted for possession of a pistol.

As a street-gang leader in Detroit with a prior juvenile record, Mr. Mathis had jail written all over his case. But his judge meted out a different kind of sentence.

He ordered the teen to get a high school equivalency diploma within one year or go to jail.

Mathis got his diploma. And today, he is a state district judge in Detroit with a firsthand perspective on the issue of young criminals.

He is also one of a growing number of success stories emerging across the country - stories of troubled teens whose lives were transformed by a judge, police officer, teacher, or community volunteer seeking to break the cycle of youth crime.

As the debate over pending juvenile crime legislation heats up in Washington, the nation's capital is being deluged by dire predictions that the country is on the verge of an explosion of violent crime committed by teens.

But a recent Justice Department conference suggests that Americans don't have to accept this gloomy prospect. The conference was aimed at identifying and replicating successful strategies to deal with juvenile offenders and preventing American children from becoming criminals in the first place.

"When you know what works and you do it and you see children's lives reclaimed, it becomes unconscionable not to do more," President Clinton told the conference. "This is not rocket science; it is replication," he said. "We know what works. There is no excuse for not doing what works."

Mr. Clinton is critical of two bills in the Republican-controlled Congress that stress punishment over rehabilitation and prevention. The bills call for ever-younger criminals to be tried and sentenced as adults - an effort to hold even young teens accountable for serious crimes.

Clinton's solutions

The Clinton administration's approach emphasizes child safety locks to keep guns out of children's hands, and it seeks more than $250 million for crime prevention and intervention programs at the state and local level.

As a part of this prevention plan, the administration would like to launch 1,000 after-school programs to keep children out of trouble during the critical hours after school and before parents return home from work. Studies show that most juvenile crime is committed between 3 and 7 p.m.

The administration also wants to encourage communities to follow Boston's lead. Boston has dramatically reduced serious juvenile crime by making it a top priority and targeting the small percentage of young criminals who account for most of the crime.

To help these efforts, authorities in Boston have also beefed up their probation program. Probation and police officers now make house calls on young offenders to make sure that the offenders are obeying their court-mandated curfews.

Bill Stewart, a Boston probation officer, tells how he saw evidence of this program working on the first night of his new beat.

Mr. Stewart says a call came over the radio of a shooting that night. While a police officer attended to the crime, Stewart walked around the edge of the crime scene and ran into one of his probationers.

When the teen saw his probation officer in his neighborhood at night, he was shocked. "What are you doing here," he asked.

Stewart threw back: "What are you doing here? You are violating curfew."

The probation officer explained to the teen that under the new program he would be regularly coming to the teen's neighborhood to make sure he was behaving himself.

The teen's response: "That's not fair."

Fair or not, Boston's youth probation department now has a compliance rate of 70 percent, which experts say is perhaps the best rate anywhere in the country.

Getting tough

Sometimes, the level of youth violence mandates tough action.

In New York City, federal prosecutors responded to increasingly frequent and bloody gang wars by using the same tactics that brought down La Cosa Nostra boss John Gotti.

In 1992, street gangs battled over a three-block area of the Bronx. The gun fights left 39 gang members and bystanders dead. Rather than launching 39 separate homicide investigations, Assistant US Attorney Elizabeth Glazer relied on federal racketeering laws to identify and prosecute not only the shooters but also the gang leaders who sanctioned the violence.

The result: 20 racketeering indictments charging 300 gang members and leaders with involvement in 200 murders. Virtually all of the defendants are incarcerated and facing life in prison.

The gang members charged represented a relatively small group of people who accounted for a large amount of crime in the Bronx, says Ms. Glazer. Such prosecutions take out "the core of people in the neighborhood who are driving up crime," she says.

But prosecution isn't the only way to break up a gang.

A bullet in the spine left Los Angeles street-gang member Gilbert Salinas confined to a wheelchair. But it wasn't until a youth outreach group offered him a paying job that he decided to quit his gang.

"They opened doors for me," says Mr. Salinas of his liberation. Today, Salinas spends most of his time educating children about the value of staying in school and avoiding gang life. He is coordinating programs at six different schools under a project called Youth Alive - Los Angeles Teens on Target.

"There is help for these kids, but we have to catch them while they are young," he says.

Judge Mathis, the former gang member, agrees. "A typical street gang member feels rejected from society and usually has a dysfunctional family. So the gang becomes the loving family, and the gang becomes the society that they end up embracing," he says. "We must embrace urban youth and convince them that we want them to be a part of mainstream society."

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